As a research misconduct hearing approaches, a behavioral ecologist under fire for more than 2 years for data irregularities or possible fabrication in dozens of publications has resigned from his prestigious position at McMaster University. science has 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 won international acclaim and whose willingness to share data attracted many eager collaborators.
Although Pruitt is no longer employed by McMaster as of July 10, according to the statement, the university has yet to disclose any findings from a recently concluded investigation into the scientist’s research. This leaves some journal editors and researchers in the field confused about what work by Pruitt remains credible and whether any research misconduct has occurred. “It’s appropriate that Jonathan is no longer employed—hopefully at an academic institution,” says Kate Laskowski, a behavioral ecologist at the University of California (UC), Davis. “But I won’t feel it [McMaster administrators] have done enough to make public their findings about the investigation. … I’m extremely frustrated.” Laskowski first brought concerns about Pruitt’s records to the public in a blog post in early 2020 after anomalies in a publication they co-authored were brought to her attention.
Pruitt has yet to respond to McMaster’s resignation announcement, but yesterday, before the university confirmed the news, he said science in an email, “I’m getting closer to a time when I’ll be able to talk about #PruittGate in an open forum.” (Twitter users tagged discussions about the ecologists’ research #PruittGate in 2020, when the controversy erupted.)
Pruitt, who in 2018 was named a Canada 150 Research Chair, a position given to only 24 scientists in the country at the time, was placed on administrative leave by McMaster in November 2021 after the university completed an initial investigation into the concerns raised. by Laskowski and others. At the time, the institution did not release details about its findings, and both the university and Pruitt said the misconduct review process was not complete.
This spring, lawyers hired by the university asked several researchers who raised questions about Pruitt’s records to testify at a hearing for the researcher; the date of which was not announced. “There would be an internal investigation [that] included testimony from expert witnesses who could speak to problems with the scientific data,” says Daniel Bolnick, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Connecticut, Storrs, who as editor of The American Naturalist was included in one of Pruitt’s earliest paper recalls.
In recent days, Laskowski says, McMaster contacted some of those researchers to say there would be no more hearings because of the settlement. The university noted in an email that as part of the agreement, “Dr. Pruitt agrees that they will not initiate any legal action against you for complaints to McMaster University about Dr. Pruitt, or for your participation in any McMaster University process or investigation.”
In the following emails with scienceMcMaster spokesman Wade Hemsworth wrote that the university had not yet completed its work on the Pruitt investigation. It also noted that “the allegations of misconduct involved external complaints about research conducted by Pruitt between 2011 and 2015. Pruitt joined the McMaster faculty in July 2018.” (Between 2011 and 2015, Pruitt worked primarily at the University of Pittsburgh. He then conducted research at UC Santa Barbara before heading to McMaster.)
Like Laskowski, Nicholas DiRienzo, a data scientist now in private industry who has retracted or added letters of concern to several papers he co-authored with Pruitt, is disappointed with McMaster’s transparency. “The whole field [is] stuck in the mud wondering what research was good and what wasn’t,” he says, noting that Pruitt, while at McMaster, published papers that have also been challenged.
Jeremy Fox, an ecologist at the University of Calgary who helped reanalyze some of Pruitt’s data for the journals, wonders why Pruitt has resigned now and wishes McMaster hadn’t taken so long to come around. this point. “They could have been faster,” he says.
In 2020, letters from Pruitt’s lawyers advised the journal’s editors and Pruitt’s co-authors to wait for McMaster’s investigation to be completed before moving to revise or retract papers involving the ecologist. Several journal editors, including Bolnick, ignored that advice and have since retracted Pruitt’s papers. Others, like co-author and behavioral ecologist David Fisher of the University of Aberdeen, say they’ve been waiting to see what McMaster ended up with. “A public statement from McMaster … will encourage some editors who have been resistant to action,” predicts Bolnick.
Pruitt’s formal resignation may be enough for some. Peter Thrall, an ecologist at National Research Collections Australia, is editor-in-chief Ecology Letters and had waited for a McMaster decision before conducting a review of Pruitt’s letters. Now, he says, that review can begin.