Spider biologist denies suspicions of widespread data fraud in animal personality research | Science
It’s been a nasty couple of weeks for behavioral ecologist Jonathan Pruitt—the holder of one of the distinguished Canada 150 Research Chairs—and it could get loads worse. What started with questions on data in one of Pruitt’s papers has flared right into a social media–fueled scandal in the small subject of animal personality research, with dozens of papers on spiders and different invertebrates being scrutinized by scores of college students, postdocs, and different co-authors for problematic data.
Already, two papers co-authored by Pruitt, now at McMaster University, have been retracted for data anomalies; Biology Letters is predicted to expunge a 3rd inside days. And the extra Pruitt’s co-authors look, the extra potential data issues they discover. All papers utilizing data collected or curated by Pruitt, a extremely productive researcher who specialised in social spiders, are coming beneath scrutiny and people in his subject predict there can be many retractions. The furor has even earned a Twitter hashtag—#PruittData.
Yet even one of the researchers who initially probed Pruitt’s data cautions that what has occurred stays unclear. “There is no hard evidence that [Pruitt’s] data are fabricated,” says behavioral ecologists Niels Dingemanse of Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich (LMU).
As for Pruitt, he’s in the center of four months of fieldwork in Australia and the South Pacific and insists there was no data fabrication or fraud, saying the data points are all errors. “These errors are not unheard of in data management,” he instructed ScienceInsider in a cellphone name on Thursday night time U.S. time, his first interview for the reason that retractions. Nonetheless, “If a scientist can’t be careful, that’s as big an indictment as someone who goes around and adjusts data. … I appreciate the amount of time people have spent to navigate this situation fairly.”
A McMaster University spokesperson mentioned the college is “aware of allegations regarding Jonathan Pruitt” however declined additional touch upon the matter. A University of California Santa Barbara spokesperson additionally says the varsity is conscious of the allegations concerning Pruitt, who left a college place there in October 2018 for Canada. “While we cannot discuss specific cases, maintaining the highest degree of integrity in all research endeavors is essential to our mission. We have robust procedures on our campus to address instances of research misconduct, and we would cooperate with any other institution conducting an investigation,” she famous in an e-mail.
As divisive as retractions might be, behavioral ecologists are hoping to manage the harm to their subject’s repute by being open about their investigations, detailing them on blogs and social media. “It might taint the field, but it’s something we will just have to weather,” says Leigh Simmons, a behavioral ecologist on the University of Western Australia. Even outsiders to the sphere are taking discover of the try at transparency. “It is very, very hard to prevent fraud (if that is what happened here) but [the response] should be a model for responding to it,” Seth Finnegan, a paleobiologist on the University of California (UC), Berkeley, tweeted.
Although some researchers have tweeted that the affair displays the dearth of scientific rigor in animal behavioral research—and in specific, the documentation of animal personalities, Pruitt’s colleagues summarily reject that. “It’s a gross overstatement to say this is now the death of the field,” Dingemanse says.
He provides that he has all the time had issues about Pruitt’s method to data assortment, worrying that Pruitt cherry-picked data to assist his concepts. So when a younger researcher got here to him with questions on a paper in The American Naturalist co-authored by Pruitt, he recruited behavioral ecologists Erik Postma and Tom Tregenza of the University of Exeter and LMU’s Petri Niemela to probe its data. They ran simulations of the experiments to see whether or not they may clarify how the data may be generated naturally. They couldn’t. “We were simply finding there were too many replicates of the same data points,” Dingemanse says.
He then approached Pruitt’s co-author, Kate Laskowski, a behavioral ecologist at UC Davis, and Daniel Bolnick, the editor of that journal. Laskowski, too, scrutinized the work and discovered extra questionable data, first in that paper after which in two different papers she’d co-authored with Pruitt; he had been the only real supply of the animal data for analyses of how social interactions strengthen animal personalities and have an effect on a gaggle’s survival.
Pruitt, who carried out research in the United States funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) for nearly 10 years earlier than Canada lured him with a grant of $350,000 yearly for 7 years, supplied Laskowski and Bolnick a number of explanations for these anomalies, they are saying, however finally agreed to a retraction of the preliminary paper, which was introduced on 17 January. Just a few days later, Laskowski tweeted her dismay that different papers she had carried out with Pruitt have been about to face the identical destiny. “I am not excited to say that there were similar problems in the raw data of another of my papers—this paper is now retracted, too.”
After that first retraction, Bolnick, a behavioral ecologist on the University of Connecticut, Storrs, obtained dozens of emails, some nameless, expressing issues about different papers involving Pruitt. He forwarded these emails to the research integrity workplace at McMaster and alerted different journals. This week on his weblog Eco-Evo, Evo-Eco, he defined his involvement thus far and introduced the creation of a Google doc compiling Pruitt papers being checked out, with particulars about how the data have been collected and now, being newly analyzed. “I’m very concerned that people collaborating with him will be tarred with the same brush,” Bolnick says. “There are definitely papers out there [co-authored by Pruitt] where other people collected the data and I consider those papers to be sound and trustworthy.”
Noa Pinter-Wollman, a behavioral ecologist at UC Los Angeles, is amongst these out of the blue reevaluating her work with Pruitt. Interested in animal interactions and community evaluation, she teamed up with Pruitt 5 years in the past. He turned “a close collaborator and a trusted friend,” she says, and collectively they’ve revealed virtually 20 papers. Pruitt alerted her to the primary retraction 2 weeks in the past and she or he’s been scrambling since then to take care of the information. She’s assured of her and her college students’ work and has assurances from others in Pruitt’s lab that their data are sound, “so we are focusing on data collected and curated by Jonathan,” she says. That includes writing laptop applications to ferret out data irregularities equivalent to duplicated data or sure sequences of numbers that don’t have the anticipated randomness. “This is the type of forensics that I never imagined I would have to do,” she says. Already, she’s discovered three papers she needs to retract and is investigating three extra.
She is a cosigner on a public assertion launched 29 January by Ambika Kamath, a behavioral ecologist at UC Berkeley and former Pruitt postdoc, and Pruitt lab members and collaborators promising to get to the underside of these issues. “We are working as a community to create a resource about which papers are reliable,” Pinter-Wollman says. “But it’s a tragedy for me. I lost a trusted collaborator.”
I hope that all of it seems that he’s been careless. But if he has falsified data, then he has to pay the value.
Many persons are grieving. “I’m devastated,” says Pruitt’s former graduate faculty adviser, Susan Reichert, a behavioral ecologist on the University of Tennessee, Knoxville; suspicions have additionally been raised about Pruitt’s Ph.D. thesis on spiders. Outgoing and energetic, Pruitt is taken into account good, artistic, and collaborative. “He’s very sharing of his work with other people and [with] credits,” Reichert says.
Behavioral ecologists usually battle to get funding for his or her fieldwork, however Pruitt has been effectively supported. Since 2014, he has held three grants from NSF, totaling $600,000 and he additionally has some funding from the U.S. National Institutes of Health. Canada’s choice of him for one of its endowed chairs created for the nation’s 150th anniversary appeared to cement him as a younger celebrity in the sphere.
Pruitt says he’s puzzled by what’s taking place. After the preliminary retraction got here out, he tells ScienceInsider, “Each morning when I woke up, there was a different anonymous email taking issue with a different dataset and a different paper. … Do they think I was just copying and pasting a spreadsheet? I don’t think I would do that.”
At first, he was in the fray tweeting—however not. “There are so many voices and they are so loud and diverse, there’s no way to address it.” Instead, he says he’s specializing in his fieldwork, setting insect traps throughout the South Pacific earlier than and after cyclones hit to find out how totally different species are affected by these large storms. Last 12 months, he reported on work in which he collected data on spiders earlier than and after a U.S. hurricane. It’s one of the papers now being scrutinized.
Pruitt says he has no expectations that he’ll be capable to proceed in behavioral ecology, saying he is aware of he has misplaced the belief of his colleagues about his data. But these cyclone data can be helpful it doesn’t matter what occurs, he says. “If I’m on fire and my longevity is [short], I will bequeath them to another researcher.” He is anxious, nonetheless, that as every retraction occurs, even innocuous errors in his data or experiments can be trigger for extra retractions. It’s a fear that Dingemanse shares. Such cautious inspection of data will usually flip up one thing, regardless of how effectively collected and compiled, he says. “If you looked at my data [this way], you might also come up with causes for concern,” Dingemanse says.
According to Bolnick, 23 journals are investigating Pruitt’s papers. And the group is feeling its approach by the difficulty. “Nothing like this has ever happened in our discipline,” says Simmons, who’s editor in chief of Behavioral Ecology.
Simmons has spent the previous three days poring over the 11 papers Pruitt has written for his journal, going again to a data repository now mandated by his journal and others to verify uncooked data. Yet he laments that the preliminary hashtag—#Pruittgate—is just too damming and thinks “we need to, as much as we can, avoid a witch hunt.”
Still, even Pruitt’s staunchest supporters need to see the scenario resolved. “I hope that it all turns out that he’s been careless,” Reichert says. “But if he has falsified data, then he has to pay the price.”
With reporting by Erik Stokstad.