As a major research misconduct hearing looms, a behavioral ecologist criticized 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 the social behavior of spiders has won international acclaim and whose willingness to share data has attracted many eager collaborators.
Although Pruitt is no longer employed by McMaster as of July 10, according to the statement, the university has not yet released any findings from a recently completed study of the scientist’s research. This leaves some journal editors and researchers in the field confused about which work by Pruitt remains reliable and whether any research misconduct occurred. “It’s fitting that Jonathan is no longer employed—hopefully at any 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 until they make their investigation findings public. … I am extremely disappointed.” Laskowski first brought concerns about Pruitt’s data to the public, via a blog post, in early 2020 after anomalies in a post they co-authored were brought to her attention.
Pruitt has yet to respond to McMaster’s resignation statement, but yesterday, before the university confirmed the news, said Science in an email, “I’m getting close to a time when I can talk about #PruittGate in an open forum.” (Twitter users tagged discussions about the environmentalist study with #PruittGate in 2020 when the controversy erupted.)
Pruitt, who in 2018 was named a Canada 150 Research Chair, a position given to only 24 academics 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 et al. At the time, the institution did not release details of 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 data to testify at the researcher’s hearing; whose date has not been announced. “There would have been an internal investigation [that] included testimony from experts 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 involved in one of the earliest retractions of Pruitt’s documents.
In the past few days, Laskowski says, McMaster has contacted some of those researchers to say there will be no more hearings because of the settlement. The university noted in an email that as part of the deal, “Dr. Pruitt agrees that they will not take any legal action against you for making complaints to McMaster University about Dr. Pruitt or for your participation in a McMaster University lawsuit or investigation.”
In subsequent emails with Science, McMaster spokesman Wade Hemsworth wrote that the university has not yet completed its work on the Pruitt probe. He also noted that “the allegations of misconduct include 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 subsequently conducted research at the University of California, Santa Barbara before going to McMaster.)
Like Laskowski, Nicholas DiRienzo, a data scientist now in the private sector who has retracted or had letters of concern added to several documents he co-authored with Pruitt, is frustrated by McMaster’s transparency. “The whole field [is] left in the lurch of wondering what research is good and what isn’t,” he says, noting that Pruitt, while at McMaster, published papers that were also challenged.
Jeremy Fox, an ecologist at the University of Calgary who helped reanalyze some of Pruitt’s journal data, wonders why Pruitt resigned now and wishes it hadn’t taken McMaster so long to get to that point. “They could have been faster,” he says.
In 2020, letters from Pruitt’s lawyers advised journal editors and Pruitt’s co-authors to wait for the McMaster investigation to conclude before moving to review or retract documents involving the environmentalist. Some journal editors, including Bolnick, ignored that advice and have since retracted Pruitt’s papers. “A public statement by McMaster … will encourage some editors who have been resistant to take action,” predicted Bolnick.
Pruitt’s formal resignation may be enough for some. Peter Thrall, an ecologist at National Research Collections Australia, is editor-in-chief of Environmental letters and was awaiting McMaster’s decision before conducting a review of Pruitt’s documents. Now, he says, that review can begin.
Correction, July 13, 10:35 a.m.: This story removed a reference to an article co-authored by David Fisher of the University of Aberdeen with Jonathan Pruitt. Fisher did not wait, as originally indicated, for the results of McMaster’s investigation to examine the document. He already has and has sent a report of the findings to the journal where it was published.