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Jonathan Pruitt, seen here in 2015 holding a black widow spider, has had his animal behavior data come under scrutiny by journals and peers.

Kara Holsopple/The Allegheny Front

Embattled spider biologist seeks to delay additional retractions of problematic papers

After many colleagues recently raised concerns in blogs and tweets that behavioral ecologist Jonathan Pruitt had fabricated the data behind a slew of provocative results regarding animal personalities and social spiders, he denied the charges, saying any problems were inadvertent mistakes. Now the biologist’s lawyer has sent letters to some co-authors and journal editors, cautioning them to let misconduct investigations at Pruitt’s current and former universities play out before retracting any more of his papers. In addition, an online spreadsheet quickly established to track analyses of the integrity of the scientist’s 160 papers has been taken offline.

The two actions have effectively shut down the once very public discussion of the situation and put in limbo further clarification of the reliability of papers co-authored by Pruitt, now at McMaster University. Boston University’s James Traniello, editor-in-chief of Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, where Pruitt co-authored nine papers, says that as a scientist he is not used to dealing with legal issues and he feels “stuck between a rock and a hard place” in sorting out the best course of action.

In late January, while Pruitt was doing fieldwork in Australia, one of his co-authors tweeted and blogged about irregularities in spider behavior observations given to her by Pruitt. Those data concerns had led to the retractions of two of their papers, a step Pruitt approved. Many other Pruitt co-authors began expressing concerns and contacting him to ask what was going on. Pruitt, who 2 years ago was given a celebrated endowed research position by Canada, initially responded to some people and journals but says he was then overwhelmed. Between all the emails and social media comments, “There are so many voices, and they are so loud and so diverse, there’s no way to address it,” Pruitt said in an interview with Scienceinsider at the time.

Now, Pruitt acknowledges in a new interview that a lawyer he hired has sent several journal editors and co-authors letters cautioning them about airing this matter on social media and admonishing them to follow retraction guidelines set up by the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), “A journal or co-author only received a letter when they were failing to adhere to these guidelines.” Pruitt says.  Those guidelines say journals should consider holding off on making retractions until any institutional investigations have concluded, but do not mandate they do. “I just want the process to play itself out, and that will inform the journals about [which] papers are reliable, and which are not,” Pruitt says. (There has been a third retraction.)

Daniel Bolnick, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Connecticut, Storrs, had set up a Google doc for the field to help sort out which Pruitt-associated papers do not have problems. “I wanted to counter the tendency to throw out the baby with the bathwater,” says Bolnick, who, as editor of The American Naturalist, was involved in the first retraction of a Pruitt-coauthored paper. But Bolnick recently had second thoughts about the public nature of the spreadsheet. Anyone could edit it and he worried that some papers listed as questionable might later turn out to be sound.  “I didn’t feel like it was a resource that I could guarantee the accuracy of everything,” he says.

Bolnick declined to say whether he had received a letter from Pruitt or if such a letter played any role in his decision to take down the Google doc.  While no one in Pruitt’s field would share any of the letters from his lawyer with ScienceInsider, several sources say they include a warning not to publicly discuss the letter itself. Even those who have not received letters are worried.

“Due to legal concerns (Pruitt obtaining lawyers) I have been advised not to issue any comments on this until the investigation surrounding Dr. Pruitt has finished,” Colin Wright, a postdoctoral fellow at Pennsylvania State University, University Park, who co-authored several papers with Pruitt, tells ScienceInsider.  Another co-author, behavioral ecologist David Fisher at the University of Aberdeen, says addressing the matter is on hold. “We’re mostly waiting to see what papers get retracted in the end, and then to see what the official investigation that I assume is happening finds,” he wrote.

Journal editors are in a similar holding pattern. “We will await the outcome of an investigation at his current and previous employers before deciding to retract or not,” wrote Tim Coulson, an ecologist at the University of Oxford and editor at Ecology Letters, where Pruitt has co-authored two papers relying on data he collected. 

The editor of Functional Ecology, where Pruitt has co-authored four papers, says he has requested data from the biologist to support those papers, but has not received anything.  (One paper used data collected by others, but the three with Pruitt-provided data were published before the journal required all data to be entered into online repositories.) “We do not yet have those data and do not know if we will be able to obtain them,” evolutionary ecologist Charles Fox at the University of Kentucky says.

Pruitt, who maintained this week he had not fabricated results, says he can’t provide detailed explanations regarding the data anomalies to journals because it risks interfering with the formal university investigations. He adds that it’s also difficult to fully defend himself given all the informal communication between journals and coauthors, to which he is not privy. “There is information that I would like to disclose to the journals, but because they are communicating with each other, I can’t be forthcoming,” he says. “Once the investigations are over, I can share [explanations].”

Before Pruitt moved in 2018 to McMaster to become one of Canada’s “150 Research Chairs”, an honor recognizing the nation’s 150th anniversary, he was a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara.  Both universities say they are aware of the allegations against his work but will say little else. According to McMaster’s research integrity office guidelines, investigations should conclude in 2 months, which would please many of Pruitt’s colleagues. “I ‘d like to see it brought to a conclusion as soon as possible,” Traniello says.

But 2 months may be overly optimistic, says Wade Hemsworth, a spokesperson at McMaster. “Some cases take longer, depending on size and complexity, and whether those involved are available for interviews,” he wrote in an email.  Pruitt will be returning to Canada soon. 

Time, however, may not be on his side. Coulson wrote to Pruitt soon after learning about the two retractions in other journals. The delay in Pruitt providing a suitable reply is only making the Ecology Letters editor more suspicious.  “I don’t think it looks promising that a simple, nonfraud, compelling explanation will surface,” Coulson says.

*Clarification, 13 March: A misunderstanding between the writer and Jonathan Pruitt led to a statement that he was withholding data itself because of the actions of journals. The story has been updated to better reflect his meaning.