With a pivotal research misconduct hearing nearing, a behavioral ecologist under fire for more than 2 years for data irregularities or possible fabrication in dozens of publications has resigned from their prestigious position at McMaster University, Science you have learned. The Canadian school confirmed yesterday in a statement it has reached a “confidential” settlement with Jonathan Pruitt, whose work on social behavior in spiders had earned international acclaim and whose willingness to share data drew many eager collaborators.
Although Pruitt is no longer employed by McMaster as of 10 July, according to the statement, the university has still not revealed any conclusions from a recently completed probe into the scientist’s research. That leaves some journal editors and researchers in the field confused about what work from Pruitt remains trustworthy and whether any research misconduct occurred. “It’s appropriate 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 [McMaster administrators] have done enough until they make public their findings about the investigation. …I’m extremely frustrated.” Laskowski first brought concerns about Pruitt’s data to public light, via a blog post, in early 2020 after anomalies in a publication on which they were co-authors were brought to her attention.
Pruitt has not yet responded to McMaster’s statement about the resignation but yesterday, before the university confirmed the news, told Science in an email, “I am approaching a moment when I will be able to speak about #PruittGate in an open forum.” (Twitter users labeled discussions about the environmentalists’ research #PruittGate in 2020, when the controversy erupted.)
Pruitt, who in 2018 was named a Canada 150 Research Chair, a position given to just 24 scientists in the country at the time, was placed on administrative leave from McMaster in November 2021, after the university concluded an initial investigation into the concerns raised by Laskowski and others. At the time, the institution released no 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 data to testify at a hearing on the researcher; the date of which had not been announced. “There was going to be an internal investigation [that] involved testimony by 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 involved in one of the earliest retractions of Pruitt’s papers.
In the past few days, Laskowski says, McMaster contacted some of those researchers to say there would no longer be a hearing because of the settlement. The university noted in an email that as part of the deal, “Dr. Pruitt agrees that they will not initiate any legal action against you for making complaints to McMaster University about Dr. Pruitt, or for your participation in any McMaster University process or investigation.”
In follow-up emails with ScienceMcMaster spokesperson Wade Hemsworth wrote that the university had still not completed its work on the Pruitt probe. He also noted that “the allegations of misconduct involved external complaints of 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 subsequently conducted research at UC Santa Barbara before leaving for McMaster.)
Like Laskowski, Nicholas DiRienzo, a data scientist now in private industry who has retracted or has had letters of concern added to several papers he co-wrote with Pruitt, is disappointed with McMaster’s transparency. “The whole field [is] left in a lurch wondering what research was good and what was not,” 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 the Pruitt data for journals, wonders why Pruitt has resigned now and wishes McMaster had not taken so long to reach this 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 McMaster’s investigation to conclude before moving to review or retract papers involving the ecologist. Some journal editors, including Bolnick, ignored that advice and have since retracted Pruitt papers. “A public statement from McMaster … will embolden some editors who have been resistant to taking action,” Bolnick predicts.
Pruitt’s official resignation may be enough for some. Peter Thrall, an ecologist at National Research Collections Australia, is editor-in-chief of Ecology Letters and had been waiting for a McMaster decision before conducting a review of Pruitt’s papers. Now, he says, that review can commence.
Correction, July 13, 10:35 am: This story has removed a reference to a paper on which David Fisher of the University of Aberdeen was a co-author with Jonathan Pruitt. Fisher is not, as originally indicated, waiting on the results of the McMaster inquiry to investigate the paper. He already has and sent a report on the findings to the journal where it was published.