Pruitt research fraud

Posted on May 17, 2023 by Alex Luscombe

After a lengthy 3.5 year investigation, renowned McMaster University spider researcher (behavioural ecologist) Jonathan Pruitt has been found guilty of falsifying data in multiple major research papers by the university’s internal investigation committee. Pruitt was found to have “generally failed to meet the requirements expected of a tenured professor”. With 15 papers to his name retracted in the last 15 years, I’d have to agree. Research fraud is very bad, and I applaud the university for taking the matter seriously and handling this the way they did. There have been a lot of major research fraud scandals in the news lately, and McMaster seems to have done particularly well in handling this one.

But if there’s one line that jumped out to me in the committee’s decision (the parts shared online – full report is not public as far as I know), it’s this line in bold, as quoted by Retraction Watch:

The Committee also found that Dr. Pruitt failed to exhibit the rigour, reasonably necessary to comply with the Policy, in the performance of their research or in reporting their data and findings in the various papers which were examined. In addition, the Committee found that Dr. Pruitt engaged in inadequate record-keeping which breached the Policy, including that Dr. Pruitt did not fulfill their obligations to keep complete and accurate records of their data in a manner that would allow for verification or replication.

In brief, the facts submitted established that data and sequences of data were duplicated in all three papers. The Committee was also satisfied that Dr. Pruitt engaged in fabrication and falsification with respect to whether spiders were collected for the study conducted and concerning which spiders were used and whether the assays were conducted to support the papers. The positions advanced by Dr. Pruitt to explain the data and sequence duplication were not accepted by the Committee. The Committee also accepted that there are no statistical or biological explanations for the types of duplication observed in the papers.

Researchers everywhere ought to take note of this. Because let’s be real: Pruitt is most certainly not the first nor the only researcher to have failed to “keep complete and adequate records” regarding their data collection and analytic procedures etc. etc. Everyone ought to do better in this respect, not just Pruitt.

If nothing else, an excellent reminder: document, document, document. (And I don’t think that applies only to academic researchers… looking at you data journalists!)