Embattled Spider Biologist Resigns University Post |  Science

Embattled Spider Biologist Resigns University Post | Science

A behavioral ecologist who has been under fire for more than 2 years for data anomalies or possible falsification in dozens of publications has resigned from his prestigious position at McMaster University. Science have learned. The Canadian school confirmed in a statement yesterday that it had reached a “confidential” agreement with Jonathan Pruitt, whose work on social behavior in spiders had received international recognition and whose willingness to share data drew many eager collaborators.

Though Pruitt left McMaster as of July 10, the statement said the university has still not released any conclusions from a recently completed review of the scientist’s research. This leaves some journal editors and researchers in the field confused as to which of Pruitt’s work remains trustworthy and whether there has been any scientific misconduct. “It’s appropriate that Jonathan is no longer employed — hopefully not at any academic institution,” says Kate Laskowski, a behavioral ecologist at the University of California (UC), Davis. “But I won’t feel anything [McMaster administrators] have done enough to make their findings about the investigation public. … I’m extremely frustrated.” Laskowski first publicized concerns about Pruitt’s data via a blog post in early 2020 after she was alerted to anomalies in a paper they were co-authors on.

Pruitt has not yet responded to McMaster’s statement of resignation, but communicated yesterday before the university confirmed the news Science in an email, “I’m getting closer to a moment where I can speak about #PruittGate in an open forum.” (Twitter users were dubbing discussions of the ecologists’ research as #PruittGate in 2020 when the controversy erupted. )

Pruitt, who was appointed Canada 150 Research Chair in 2018, a position then only allocated to 24 scientists in the country, was placed on administrative leave by McMaster in November 2021 after the university completed an initial investigation into the concerns raised by Laskowski and other. At the time, the institution did not release details of its findings, and both the university and Pruitt said the misconduct review process was ongoing.

That spring, attorneys hired by the university asked several researchers who had raised questions about Pruitt’s data to testify about the researcher at a hearing; the date of which has not yet been announced. “There should be an internal investigation [that] involved expert testimony that could address issues with the scientific data,” said Daniel Bolnick, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Connecticut, Storrs, who serves as editor of The American naturalist was involved in one of the earliest redemptions of Pruitt’s securities.

In recent days, Laskowski says, McMaster has contacted some of those researchers to say there will be no more hearings on the settlement. The university noted in an email that as part of the deal, “Dr. Pruitt agrees that they will not take legal action against you for making complaints to McMaster University about Dr. Pruitt or because you participated in a McMaster University proceeding or investigation.”

In follow-up emails with Science, McMaster spokesman Wade Hemsworth wrote that the university has still not completed its work on the Pruitt probe. He also noted that “the allegations of misconduct concerned external complaints about research conducted by Pruitt between 2011 and 2015. Pruitt joined McMaster’s faculty in July 2018.” (Between 2011 and 2015, Pruitt worked primarily at the University of Pittsburgh. He then did research at UC Santa Barbara before joining McMaster.)

Like Laskowski, Nicholas DiRienzo, a data scientist-turned-private-sector who has retracted or raised concerns about several papers he co-authored with Pruitt, is disappointed with McMaster’s transparency. “The whole field [is] down and wondering what research was good and what wasn’t,” he says, noting that while at McMaster Pruitt published articles that were also challenged.

Jeremy Fox, an ecologist at the University of Calgary who helped reanalyze some of the Pruitt data for journals, wonders why Pruitt has resigned now and wishes it hadn’t taken McMaster so long to get to this point. “They could have been faster,” he says.

In 2020, letters from Pruitt’s attorneys advised magazine editors and Pruitt’s co-authors to wait for the conclusion of McMaster’s investigation before proceeding to review or withdraw papers involving the ecologist. Some journal editors, including Bolnick, ignored this advice and have since withdrawn Pruitt papers. “A public statement from McMaster…will embolden some editors who have resisted taking action,” Bolnick predicts.

Pruitt’s official resignation may suffice for some. Peter Thrall, ecologist at the National Research Collections Australia, is Editor-in-Chief of Ecological Letters and had awaited a McMaster decision before conducting a review of Pruitt’s papers. Now, he says, that review can begin.

Correction, July 13, 10:35 am: This story has removed a reference to a paper that David Fisher of the University of Aberdeen co-authored with Jonathan Pruitt. Fisher is not, as originally suggested, waiting for the results of the McMaster investigation to examine the paper. He has already sent a report of the findings to the journal in which it was published.

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