McMaster University in Hamilton finds prominent spider researcher had spun web of lies


Published May 19, 2023 at 12:30 pm

A hearings committee has found that former McMaster University professor Jonathan Pruitt, who was a highly respected spider biologist, had falsified and fabricated data in eight academic papers before landing in Hamilton.

The misconduct occurred when Pruitt was a tenured faculty member at different institutions,  McMaster said on its website on May 11 when it announced that the investigation and hearings committee process had concluded.

“Pruitt is no longer with McMaster University, and steps have been taken to provide corrections to journals that had published their research,” the university said.

The hearings committee released a summary of its findings of research misconduct addressing “unexplained patterns in the datasets.” McMaster’s findings involved eight of Pruitt’s papers. It determined that Pruitt, an evolutionary ecologist who studied the traits of creatures such as spiders, had “breached” McMaster’s Research Integrity Policy.

Over three years, 15 of Pruitt’s papers have reportedly been retracted.

Pruitt could not be reached by Prestigious journal Science’s news department reported May 11 that Pruitt had declined to comment about the investigation and told its journalist: “I’ll be available to chat in the fall when my first book comes out.”

Complaints emerged in early 2020

“The facts provided to the Committee were sufficient to confirm, on a balance of probabilities, that Dr. Pruitt generally failed to meet the requirements expected of a tenured professor under the Policy when conducting research. Specifically, the Committee found that Dr. Pruitt engaged in fabrication and falsification which breached the Policy,” McMaster’s hearings committee said as part of its findings.

Another example of its findings was Pruitt “failed to exhibit the rigour” in conducting research or in reporting data and findings in some papers that were examined. It also concluded Pruitt “engaged in inadequate record-keeping.” Moreover, it said data “were duplicated” in some papers.

The university tapped retired academic and prominent labour arbitrator William Kaplan to investigate the issue following complaints about some of Pruitt’s research in early 2020.

As a result of more complaints during the investigation, the scope of Kaplan’s work expanded, requiring him to review of thousands of documents, according to McMaster. Kaplan interviewed Pruitt eight times. He also questioned 13 others, including complainants, co-investigators, and witnesses. The hearing process began after Kaplan finished the report.

Four years after joining McMaster’s faculty, Pruitt reportedly resigned as a professor on July 2022 as the investigation and hearing got underway.

The behaviour ecologist, who once held the prestigious Canada 150 Research Chair position, had joined McMaster in July 2018.

End of research controversy brings relief

Kate Laskowski, assistant professor at the Department of Evolution and Ecology at the University of California Davis, had three academic papers she co-wrote with Pruitt retracted as a result of data concerns. Her January 2020 blog post detailed problems she found in the data provided by Pruitt, which apparently helped draw attention to the issue with Pruitt’s work, eventually leading to McMaster’s research misconduct investigation.

“I’m relieved to have an end and conclusion to the full saga,” Laskowski told in a phone interview. “It’s been a long couple of years.”

She first met Pruitt at a conference in 2012 and collaborated with him for a few years at the beginning of her postdoc fellowship.

“He was a friend after that. And we went to the same conferences all the time. He wrote me loads of recommendations for my job. We were in close contact. I was not really in his lab officially or anything like that,” she said, noting they have not communicated with each other in three years.  “I’m happy the whole thing is over. It took up a lot of my time for a very long time.”

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