What’s with McMaster University?

They seem to be appallingly slow to respond to accusations of scientific fraud. Last February I wrote about the scandal involving Jonathan Pruitt, a prolific scientist studying spider social behavior, whose collaborators (and there were many) who discovered that the data he contributed to their papers was in some substantial part fabricated. This is a big deal. I’ve been seeing papers cited in the popular press that are tainted by his work. There was a wave of retractions, and the guy hired lawyers to block them, which is just weird, since going to court would have provided more exposure to the evidence — I guess he was just hoping publishers would be too lazy or disinterested in validating the integrity of the research they publish.

Well, now another major strike has been made against Jonathan Pruitt: his Ph.D. has been retracted.

Jonathan Pruitt, a behavioral ecologist and Canada 150 Research Chair who has had a dozen papers retracted following allegations of data fraud, now appears to have had his doctoral dissertation withdrawn.

The news, which was first noted by Nick DiRienzo, who co-authored papers with Pruitt but has been one of the scientists trying to cleanse the scientific record of Pruitt’s problematic work, suggests that Priutt now lacks a PhD, generally considered a requirement for professorships.

Ouch. that implies that his untrustworthy behavior goes all the way back to the earliest days of his career. It also implies that he is unqualified to hold his professorship at McMaster University.

Which he still does! He’s still listed as a faculty member in the Department of Psychology, Neuroscience, and Behavior, and he still has a lab web page which lists 9 post-docs and graduate students. Oh, man, I feel for those students — I hope they’ve since landed in better labs. This is the kind of association that can ruin careers.

But now I’m wondering why McMaster isn’t cleaning up this mess. Has Pruitt sicced lawyers on them? This is the kind of thing most universities would be quick to condemn, or at the very least, sweep under the rug. Yet there he still is, virtually at least (physically, he seems to be in Florida), even with a page advertising for new grad students to join his lab. Something is going on. I hope we find out someday. Until then, I’m just going to skip over any papers authored by Pruitt, J.


  1. tbp1 says

    Someone I went to grad school with had his doctorate rescinded (years and years later) because not just his dissertation, but a lot of his work leading up to it, was plagiarized. He lost his academic position, of course. I only learned about it quite a bit after the fact, but it was really distressing. We weren’t best buddies, but he was one of the “gang” and I would never have dreamed it of him.

  2. Michael says

    Universities cave when you show up with a lawyer. At least that is what happened when a university where I once worked tired to dismiss a professor who had committed repeated egregious abuses (not research related but dealing with students and staff). The abuses included corrupt acts such as seeking to falsify teaching evaluations. Yet when she showed up with a lawyer the university backed down. This might end differently because it has become public, so they might actually fire him out of embarrassment.

  3. birgerjohansson says

    Mats Hagner, a professor emeritus at the forestry department of Umeå University forced the University to release data that revealed one of their researchers had been making stuff up.

  4. Erp says

    My guess is that as a state run institution (in Canada) removing a tenured professor could be tricky (note his residency in Canada might also be in question since he is apparently a US citizen). The withdrawn papers go back to 2011; the thesis is, I think, 2010.
    I note his dissertation has been withdrawn from public view by the University of Tennessee (it is also not in proquest [though there is a Master’s thesis, not on spiders, by someone of the same name from Liberty University]); it is unclear whether his PhD has been revoked. Certainly I would expect an announcement if the latter had happened.

  5. chris61 says

    It is my understanding (through the experience of a friend who was involved in a university investigation of alleged research misconduct) that these investigations can take years and are all highly confidential while they are still on- going. McMaster may be doing plenty behind the scenes.

  6. Thomas Scott says

    Years ago when I was still working as a Fed. Govt. researcher, I heard stories of a PI who, in a fit of new found christian remorse, admitted to dry lab-ing his PhD research. The university pulled his degree but the Fed. agency that we both worked for was compelled to allow him to keep his position on the grounds that he was a PhD when he was hired, and so did not lie on his application. Everyone referred to him as, “the late Dr. ___”.

  7. bcw bcw says

    It’s so hard to get good data. It’s so easy to mess up and have some variable uncontrolled for that makes data unclear or useless. A much bigger journal than the “Journal of Irreproducible Results” would be the “Journal of Incomplete Results” where the data looks great but something crucial is missing or went wrong (The thermocouple came unstuck so the beautiful data shows some sort of trend against some unknown temperature; or the room thermostat freaked and killed all the mice half way through or now that you have all that data there is evidence that at some point there was contamination. The next time you add the controls you didn’t think of the first time to the controls you’re already doing. ) So easy to feel so much resentment against somebody that just faked it all.

  8. says

    chris61 (#6) –

    It is my understanding (through the experience of a friend who was involved in a university investigation of alleged research misconduct) that these investigations can take years and are all highly confidential while they are still on- going. McMaster may be doing plenty behind the scenes.

    My old college had a dean replaced after three years when they are usually hired on five year contracts. The college said nothing both before and after his removal (only the announcement) but there were rumours aplenty in the community.

  9. chrislawson says

    Yes, any university investigation needs time, but given the severity of what has resulted from other investigations — papers retracted, PhD revoked — he should be on administrative leave and not supervising students let alone advertising for new ones.

  10. numerobis says

    Dismissal takes a long time. The university needs to really nail its case or else the union will fight it and win. And it may affect the endowment of the chair.

    Having a doctorate is generally a requirement, but not usually by contract in Canada — just because you’re unlikely to be offered a position unless you’ve got one, or are very near to having one (in which case there’ll typically be a clause requiring you to finish within a certain time).

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