How a scandal in spider biology upended researchers' lives -
Aug 10, 2022 3 mins, 12 secs

Spider biologist Jonathan Pruitt was investigated for data irregularities in several publications.Credit: Kara Holsopple/The Allegheny Front.

After more than two years of allegations over data irregularities in his publications, Jonathan Pruitt, a behavioural ecologist and rising star in the field of spider behaviour, resigned from McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, in July.

The university concluded an investigation into the matter in late 2021 but has not released its outcome, and revealed last month that it had reached a confidential settlement with Pruitt.

For those who have spent years combing through data to comply with university investigators and talking with journal editors about retractions, this resolution is particularly unsatisfying, says Kate Laskowski, a behavioural ecologist at the University of California, Davis, who collaborated with Pruitt on several projects.

Since allegations of data fabrication emerged in early 2020, at least 13 of Pruitt’s papers have been retracted, and 6 others have been labelled with expressions of concern.

Michelle Donovan, a spokesperson for McMaster, says Pruitt’s actions have been addressed appropriately, according to the university’s research-integrity policy.

Then in late 2019, a researcher informed Laskowski of data irregularities in a 2016 study1 that she had co-authored with Pruitt.

Pruitt’s explanation for the data irregularities did not satisfy Laskowski, so she contacted the journal.

“I was shocked at how obvious the discrepancies were,” says Lena Grinsted, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Portsmouth, UK, who had collaborated with Pruitt on a 2013 paper that was later retracted.

James Lichtenstein, an evolutionary ecologist at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, who was one of Pruitt’s graduate students at the time, says it is not surprising that no one noticed irregularities before the scandal erupted.

Grinsted worries that the retractions might have affected her ability to attract funding, given that grant panels consider previous publications: she estimates that the retracted studies she co-authored with Pruitt represent about one-tenth of all her publications.

The university told witnesses in the case that its investigation had concluded in November 2021 and it had placed Pruitt on paid administrative leave.

McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, investigated data irregularities in papers that Pruitt authored before joining its faculty.Credit: Shutterstock.

Asked about the university’s lack of transparency, Donovan, McMaster’s spokesperson, says the university cannot release more information, owing to Ontario’s privacy laws.

Several journals that published papers co-authored by Pruitt have been waiting for the results to make a final decision on retraction, says Susan Healy, a biologist at the University of St Andrews, UK, who is the publication-ethics editor at one of the journals, Animal Behaviour.

Absent a report detailing wrongdoings, any study that bears Pruitt’s name has a stigma associated with it, Laskowski says, even if he didn’t provide any data for the study, which is unfair for researchers whose studies are otherwise rigorous.

The scandal should serve as a wake-up call to scientific journals, says Dan Bolnick, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Connecticut in Storrs and the editor-in-chief of The American NaturalistL

Bolnick led an investigation into studies Pruitt published in his journal and ultimately decided to retract some of them.

Animal Behaviour did not wait for information from McMaster to retract papers for which sufficient information was available to reach a decision, Healy says.

At Nature, where one Pruitt paper is labelled with an expression of concern2, “our investigation into the issues raised is still ongoing”, says a spokesperson for the journal.

As difficult as the last two years have been, this incident has prompted a reckoning in the animal-behaviour field about how to have positive collaborations and publish reproducible studies, Grinsted says.

Journals in behavioural ecology have adopted higher standards for data archiving and more often check to ensure researchers follow these guidelines, Bolnick saysJ

Correction 10 August 2022: An earlier version of this story placed evolutionary biologist Dan Bolnick at Yale University

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