Jonathan Pruitt holding a clear plastic jar with a spider

How a spider biology scandal upended researchers’ lives

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

Jonathan Pruitt, a behavioral ecologist and rising star in the field of spider behavior, resigned from McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, in July, more than two years after being accused in his publications.Resignation marks a turning point in a bitter saga – but Pruitt’s former lab member and collaborator tells nature They want more closures as they continue to deal with the consequences. In addition to wasting time on now-retracted research, they have also struggled with the stigma of alleged misconduct and found it difficult to trust colleagues and collaborators again.

The university closed its investigation into the matter in late 2021 but has yet to release its findings, revealing last month that it had reached a secret settlement with Pruitt.

Kate Laskowski, a behavioral ecologist at the University of California, Davis, who has collaborated with Pruitt on several projects, says that for those who spend years combing through data to comply with university investigators and discuss retractions with journal editors On a human level, this resolution is particularly unsatisfactory. . At least 13 of Pruitt’s papers have been retracted since allegations of data falsification emerged in early 2020, and six others have been tagged with concern.

Michelle Donovan, a spokeswoman for McMaster University, said Pruitt’s conduct was dealt with appropriately in accordance with the university’s research integrity policy. Although Donovan declined to comment on the settlement, Pruitt remained in McMaster’s “hearing process” — usually reserved for serious allegations of academic misconduct. Pruitt, now a science teacher at Tampa Catholic High School in Florida, declined to comment for this story.

shocking discovery

At the turn of the century, Laskowski’s future looked bright: She landed a coveted professorship at UC Davis and was set to open her own lab to explore animal behavior. Together with Pruitt, she studied social interactions among spiders.Then in late 2019, a researcher informed Laskowski of the data anomaly in a 2016 study1 She co-authored with Pruitt.

Close up of African social spider, Stegodyphus dumicola

Pruitt and Laskowski studied social spiders such as swordfish.Credit: Shutterstock

When Laskowksi dug into the dataset Pruitt provided for the study, she was shocked to find that a large amount of the data appeared to be duplicated to represent the discovery of multiple species of spiders. These questionable data help support a long-unproven theory that repeated social interactions in a group of spiders lead to predictable individual behavior.

Laskowski wasn’t satisfied with Pruitt’s interpretation of the data anomalies, so she contacted the journal. Two of Laskowski’s papers were retracted within months. Ultimately, 55 researchers will eventually be listed as co-authors along with Pruitt, and the studies they participated in retracted or expressed concerns.

“I was struck by how stark the difference was,” says Lena Grinsted, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Portsmouth, UK, who co-authored a 2013 paper with Pruitt that was later retracted. “Once people started working on it, they were everywhere.”

James Lichtenstein, an evolutionary ecologist at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, who was one of Pruitt’s graduate students at the time, said it wasn’t surprising that no one noticed the breach before the scandal broke. “You don’t want to question your advisor’s data,” he said.

lost time

Pruitt’s collaborators say the boom in retractions has affected their careers. Laskowski estimates that in the nine months since the scandal broke, she spent most of her time poring over five-year-old datasets and dealing with lawyers and journal editors. With her lab being established, she said, “it should be a good year where I can learn new skills or think about new research ideas”. Instead, she recalled what her department chair called her “vacation year.”

PhD graduation in Liechtenstein has been delayed by several months. Although he later secured a postdoctoral position, he feared that his connection to Pruitt would be a red flag when applying for jobs. “I don’t want to sweep it under the rug, but I also don’t want to talk too much about it,” he said.

Considering all the time spent on research that no longer has credibility is a “mourning process,” Lichtenstein said. “You don’t often see something so surreal happening in your life, something that doesn’t fit the rules of how the world works,” he said. “It blows your brain a little bit.”

Grinsted worries that retractions might affect her ability to attract funding, because grant groups consider previous publications: She estimates that retracted studies she co-authored with Pruitt account for about one-tenth of all her publications.

Pruitt’s collaborators say the ordeal continues to affect their mental health. “It’s like a little monster that keeps popping up in random conversations,” Lichtenstein said. Grinstead said that made her “so” suspicious that she would sometimes conduct additional scrutiny when reviewing data from collaborators.

Given that open collaboration is such an important part of scientific research, these feelings are difficult to reconcile, says David Fisher, one of Pruitt’s postdocs and now an evolutionary behaviorist at the University of Aberdeen in the UK. “We researchers can’t exist in a world where you can’t trust anyone,” he said.

looking close

Scientists have also complained about the lack of transparency in McMaster’s investigation, and the university has issued conflicting public statements. The university told witnesses in the case that its investigation ended in November 2021 and that it had placed Pruitt on paid administrative leave. However, it required witnesses to testify in a series of “research misconduct hearings” in 2022, which were then cancelled after receiving a settlement notice. Despite these cancellations, Donovan said the university is continuing the hearing process.

The McMaster University logo and glass building can be seen in the background of the campus

McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, investigated data anomalies in papers Pruitt wrote before joining the faculty.Credit: Shutterstock

When asked about the university’s lack of transparency, Donovan, a spokesman for McMaster, said the university could not release more information because of Ontario’s privacy laws. Under the University’s Research Integrity Policy, McMaster University is under no obligation to publicly release the results or its investigative report even if Pruitt is found guilty of wrongdoing by a hearing committee.

The lack of investigative reporting has been “holding back scientific progress,” Laskowski said. Several journals that published the paper Pruitt co-authored have been awaiting the results to make a final decision on retraction, said Susan Healy, a biologist at the University of St Andrews in the U.K., who is a publication ethics officer at one of the journals. edit. journals, animal behaviorLaskowski said that without a report detailing wrongdoing, any study bearing Pruitt’s name would be associated with associated stigma, even if he did not provide any data for the study, which is unfair to rigorous researchers. of.

The scandal should be a wake-up call for scientific journals, said Dan Bonick, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Connecticut Storrs and editor-in-chief of Science. American naturalist. Bonick led an investigation into the research Pruitt had published in his journal and eventually decided to retract some of it. In future cases of research misconduct, he said, more journals should conduct their own investigations rather than wait for universities to correct the scientific record sooner.

animal behavior Healy said there was no waiting for McMaster’s information to retract papers with enough information to make a decision. But she added that for other papers marked with expressions of concern, the journal is waiting to see if more relevant information is available.

exist natureone of the Pruitt papers is marked as concern expression2, “Our investigation into the issues raised is still ongoing,” a spokesman for the magazine said. “Once this is over and we have the necessary information to make an informed decision, we will take appropriate editorial action.” (natureThe journal team is separate from its news team. )

Donovan denied that McMaster had been hindering scientific progress, noting that journals “have a responsibility to review their own content and can conduct their own processes at any time.”

As difficult as it has been for the past two years, the event has prompted the field of animal behavior to think about how to actively collaborate and publish reproducible research, Greenstead said. Behavioral ecology journals have adopted higher standards for data filing and are checking more often to ensure researchers follow these guidelines, Bolnick said. animal behaviorFor example, because of the scandal, he created a dedicated publishing ethics editorial role, Healy said.

For Laskowski, a positive result is that she has learned a lot about reproducible and transparent science, even mentoring other researchers in similar situations. But she hopes that, one day, she will be known for her research, rather than for being associated with a scandal.

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