How a spider biology scandal turned researchers’ lives upside down

Spider biologist Jonathan Pruitt was examined for data irregularities in several publications.Credit: Kara Holsopple/The Allegheny Front

After more than two years of accusations of data irregularities in his publications, Jonathan Pruitt, a behavioral ecologist and rising star of spider behavior, resigned in July from McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada. The layoff marks a turning point in a painful saga – but Pruitt’s former lab members and associates told Nature that they want more closure, because they continue to deal with the consequences. Aside from the time wasted on investigations that have now been retracted, they have struggled with the stigma of being associated with alleged misconduct and have found it difficult to trust colleagues and associates again.

The university concluded an investigation into the case at the end of 2021, but has not released the outcome, and last month announced it had reached a confidential settlement with Pruitt.

For those who spent years sifting through data to satisfy university researchers and talked to magazine editors about withdrawals, this resolution is particularly unsatisfactory, said Kate Laskowski, a behavioral ecologist at the University of California, Davis, who has worked with Pruitt on several projects. Since data fabrication allegations emerged in early 2020, at least 13 of Pruitt’s papers have been retracted and 6 others have been labeled with expressions of concern.

Michelle Donovan, a spokesperson for McMaster, says Pruitt’s actions were handled appropriately, according to the university’s research integrity policy. Despite the settlement, which Donovan declined to comment on, Pruitt remains in McMaster’s “hearing trial” — mostly reserved for serious allegations of academic misconduct. Pruitt, now a science teacher at Tampa Catholic High School in Florida, declined to comment on this story.

Shocking Discoveries

By the turn of the century, Laskowski’s future looked bright: She had been awarded a coveted professorship at the University of California, Davis, and was ready to open her own lab to investigate animal behavior. Together, she and Pruitt had studied social interactions between spiders. In late 2019, a researcher informed Laskowski about data irregularities in a 2016 study1 that she had co-written with Pruitt.

Close-up of the African social spider, Stegodyphus dumicola

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

When Laskowski dug into data sets that Pruitt had provided for the study, she was shocked to find pieces of data that appeared to have been duplicated, to represent findings for multiple spiders. These questionable data helped support a long unproven theory that repeated social interactions in a group of spiders cause individuals to behave predictably.

Pruitt’s explanation for the data irregularities did not satisfy Laskowski, so she contacted the magazine. Two of Laskowski’s papers were revoked within months. Ultimately, 55 researchers in addition to Pruitt would be co-authored on studies with a withdrawal or concern.

“I was shocked at how obvious the differences were,” said Lena Grinsted, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Portsmouth, UK, who had collaborated with Pruitt on a 2013 paper that was later retracted. “Once people started looking at 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, says it’s not surprising that no one noticed irregularities before the scandal broke. “You wouldn’t think of questioning your own advisor’s data,” he says.

Lost time

Pruitt employees say the rush of withdrawals has impacted their careers. Laskowski estimates that nine months after the scandal broke, she spent most of her time digging into five-year-old data sets and dealing with lawyers and magazine editors. As her lab was being set up, she says, “it should have been this great year where I could learn new skills or come up with new research ideas.” Instead, she remembers her department president calling it her “sabbatical year.”

Lichtenstein’s promotion was delayed for months. Although he later landed a postgraduate position, he was concerned that when it came time to apply, an association with Pruitt would be a red flag. “I didn’t want to sweep it under the rug, but I didn’t want to talk about it too much either,” he says.

Thinking about all the time spent on research that is no longer credible was a “grieving process,” Lichtenstein says. “It’s not often in your life that you see something so surreal, something that doesn’t fit the rules of how the world works,” he says. “It kind of breaks your brain.”

Grinsted fears the retractions could affect her ability to raise funding, as grant panels consider past publications: She estimates the retracted studies she co-authored with Pruitt account for about a tenth of all her publications.

Pruitt’s staff say the ordeal continues to affect their mental health. “It’s like a little monster that keeps popping up in random conversations,” Lichtenstein says. And Grinsted says it has made her “annoyingly” suspicious, so she sometimes looks at employee data with extra scrutiny.

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

Looking for closure

Scientists also complain that McMaster’s research was not transparent and that the university has made conflicting public statements. The university told witnesses in the case that its investigation was completed in November 2021 and Pruitt had been placed on paid administrative leave. Still, it requested witnesses testify in a series of “investigative misconduct hearings” in 2022, which were subsequently canceled after notification of the settlement. Despite these cancellations, Donovan says the university is still continuing the hearing process.

The McMaster University sign can be seen with a glass building in the background on the campus

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

Asked about the university’s lack of transparency, Donovan, a spokesman for McMaster, said the university can’t release more information because of Ontario’s privacy laws. Under the university’s research integrity policy, even if Pruitt is found guilty of misconduct by the hearing committee, McMaster is not required to disclose the outcome or investigation report.

The lack of a research report “impedes scientific progress,” Laskowski says. Several journals that published articles co-authored by Pruitt have been waiting for the results to make a final decision on withdrawal, said Susan Healy, a biologist at the University of St Andrews, UK, who is the publication ethics editor. at one of the magazines, animal behavior. Lacking a report detailing abuses, any study that bears Pruitt’s name carries a stigma, Laskowski says, even if he didn’t provide data for the study, which is unfair to researchers whose studies are otherwise rigorous.

The scandal should shake up scientific journals, says Dan Bolnick, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Connecticut at Storrs and the editor-in-chief of The American Naturalist. Bolnick led an investigation into studies that Pruitt published in his journal and eventually decided to retract some of them. In future cases of research misconduct, more journals should do their own research, rather than waiting for universities to correct the scientific data more quickly, he says.

animal behavior did not wait for information from McMaster to withdraw documents for which sufficient information was available to reach a decision, Healy says. But for other articles marked with an expression of concern, the magazine is waiting to see if more relevant information becomes available, she adds.

Bee Naturewhere a Pruitt paper is labeled with an expression of concern2“Our investigation into the issues raised is still ongoing,” said a spokesperson for the magazine. “Once this is finalized and we have the necessary information to make an informed decision, appropriate editorial action will be taken.” (Nature‘s journals team is separate from the news team.)

Donovan denied claims that McMaster has hindered scientific progress, noting that journals are “responsible for revising their own content and can undertake their own processes at any time.”

As difficult as the past two years have been, this incident has led to an animal behavior reckoning on how to build positive collaborations and publish reproducible studies, Grinsted says. Journals in behavioral ecology have higher standards for data archiving and more often check that researchers follow these guidelines, Bolnick says. animal behaviorfor example, has created a special publishing ethics editor role as a result of the scandal, Healy says.

For Laskowski, a positive result is that she has learned a lot about reproducible and transparent science, even guiding other researchers in similar situations. But she hopes that one day she will become better known for her investigation than for being involved in a scandal.

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