The Pruitt stink lingers on

Speaking of crimes, Jonathan Pruitt is in the news again. Pruitt, you may recall, was a scientist at McMaster University who studied social behavior in spiders — very cool stuff, I’ve read many of his papers, he formed collaborations all over the place. Except…it seems he had faked a lot of his data, saddled his collaborators with untrustworthy work, and meanwhile, Pruitt nonchalantly continued on in his position and sailed off to do fieldwork. McMaster University seemed to have no problem with this stuff, even after Pruitt’s Ph.D. was retracted for his fraudulent behavior.

I would have thought faking data and having your degree invalidated would have been sufficient grounds for an instant dismissal, but someone at McMaster was really dragging their heels about getting the rubbish thrown out. I wonder if Pruitt was talking about lawsuits behind the scenes?

Now we’ve got some progress to report. McMaster never got around to firing him, but Pruitt has resigned instead!

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 has 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.

What required a “confidential” settlement? What needed to be settled at all? I don’t understand why a clear violation of academic and scientific standards should have required prolonged meetings and a hush-hush resolution. Did McMaster pay him to get out?

Now Pruitt is talking like he’s won a great victory.

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 ecologists’ research #PruittGate in 2020, when the controversy erupted.)

Do we care anymore what Pruitt has to say? The evidence that he faked data is strong and pretty much irrefutable. Nobody has been waiting to hear what excuses he can come up with. There’s a palpable arrogance to that statement. Especially given the few hints we’ve got about this settlement.

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.”

What the fuck? Laskowski was the victim here. McMaster has basically cancelled any investigation into wrongdoings and left all the collaborators whose work was corrupted by Pruitt hanging, and apparently Pruitt had threatened to sue the people who exposed his shoddy work. What an awful person.

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.

Hey, confused journal editors and researchers, it’s easy to tell what work of Pruitt’s remains trustworthy: NONE OF IT. I read a fair amount of the scientific literature on spider behavior (it’s interesting!), and one thing I do to assess whether it’s worth reading the whole paper is to first look at the authors. If “Pruitt, J” is among them, I don’t need to waste my time reading it.

That’s the real injustice here. His coauthors don’t deserve that kind of dismissal, but I’m really not going to bother trying to sort out fact from fiction in those papers.


  1. says

    This says a lot about US academic institutions, and it ain’t pretty. If they can’t stand up to an obvious fraud when he’s threatening a lawsuit (claiming what, exactly?), then how can we trust them to stand up to the rising tide of anti-democratic and anti-education hysteria?

  2. hopeleith says

    McMaster is a Canadian university, between Pruitt and JPeterson, not looking good for Canadian post-secondary.

  3. Matt G says

    Academic institutions can hold their own against anyone when it comes to ignoring ethical standards.

  4. andersk3 says

    Did Science publish this before or after Pruitt’s PHD was revoked? Time to stop referring to him as Dr.

  5. wzrd1 says

    I saw the prequel story. He was given the opportunity to resign, rather than a mutually embarrassing public hearing.
    They’d have had a lot less egg on their faces had they went with a hearing and public pillory, inevitable litigation. It’s not as if they don’t retain counsel.

  6. birgerjohansson says

    In Swedish, Pruitt sounds like the word for something quite stinky and embarrassing.

  7. says

    Okay, this was a Canadian school, not an American one. Correction noted, and sorry.

    Still sux though, big time. Either this guy has something on the college or administration, as cervantes said, or maybe he’s going the Jordan Peterson route and pretending he’s being persecuted by a liberal anti-Christian PC thug police enforcing CRT and/or pronouns.

  8. says

    From an earlier post about Pruitt:

    I was sent a link to this article about an interesting spider phenomenon, which reports that “climate change is making spiders more aggressive.”

    Y’know, that could be the next Godzilla: giant angry mutant spiders, crated by irresponsible human actions that caused catastrophic climate change, presiding over the resulting hellscape and exacting vengeance on evil tyrants and plutocrats who continue to resist sensible mitigation policies and destroy our ecosystem for short-term profit. And maybe halfway through one of the movies (of course there’d be sequels!), our heroes would find that the evil plutocrats had smeared Dr. Pruitt with false charges of falsifying data, to discredit him and prevent him from publishing the truth of what the plutocrats were causing.

    And of course the moviemakers would bring on PZ as their spider consultant, to help them make it realistic of course; and they’d ignore most of his advice because the first thing he’d say would likely be that it’s impossible for spiders’ biological processes to work if they magically grow to a much larger size; but hopefully they’d still pay him and cite him in the credits. I’m tellin’ ya, this could be HUGE!

  9. birgerjohansson says

    Just found this quote.
    ‘If your holy book tells you how to treat your slaves,
    your holy book is disqualified as a source for moral code.”
    Now back to cheating spider researchers and McMaster.

  10. Thomas Scott says

    I retired from a govt. agency that hired a PhD for a principal investigator position. After he was hired he found Jesus and admitted to dry lab-ing his entire research project. The university rescinded his degree and the govt. tried to fire him but he appealed on the grounds that he was a PhD when they hired him. He was allowed to keep his degree and retire with full benefits. He was forever referred to by his colleagues as the late Dr. X.

  11. jrkrideau says

    I wonder if the Canadian Gov’t is interested. Pruitt held a Canada 150 Research Chair which means Federal funding.

  12. chrislawson says

    Yeah, when a finding like that comes down, it poisons the confidence in every paper he ever published, to the point that the only way to accept a finding from one of his papers is to have it independently verified.