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 McMaster University seemed to have no problem with this stuff, even after Pruitt’s Ph.D. was retracted for his fraudulent behavior.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.