Allegations of “fabricated data” about spiders — is shaking the behavioral-ecology community

These GEITP pages continue to examine articles about fraud and corruption in science. Today’s topic concerns the small field of behavioral ecology — in which “meek” vs “aggressive” behavior in “social spiders” has now been realized to be full of “fabricated data.” ☹ What began with questions about data in one paper — has now exploded into a scandal involving possible manipulation of data in dozens of papers. The senior investigator is Jonathan Pruitt, who in 2018 was awarded a prestigious, well-funded Canada 150 Research Chair at McMaster University (in Hamilton, Ontario). His data on the personalities of spiders and other animals are being scrutinized by scores of coauthors, including his former students and postdocs. Already, two papers coauthored by Pruitt have been retracted, due to “data anomalies”, and a third journal is expected to retract another one soon.

The more closely that Pruitt’s coauthors have examined, the more potential data problems they find — in Pruitt’s prolific output of social behavioral science manuscripts. Many additional retractions are expected, perhaps even an unprecedented number for behavioral ecology. As the storm rages, Pruitt is presently in the middle of 4-month field trip in Australia and the South Pacific. He claims that he did not commit fraud and that “the data issues are all mistakes in data management.”

Whereas spokespersons at McMaster University — and at the University of California (UC), Santa Barbara, where Pruitt had a previous faculty position — acknowledged the allegations, and indicated investigations would be launched, Pruitt’s fellow behavioral ecologists are not waiting: they’ve already launched their own investigations. They set up a Twitter account (#PruittData), where former collaborators and others are discussing how to analyze his results and debating the long-term implications for their field. Everyone agrees that these data problems go beyond “carelessness.”

On 5 Feb 2020, McMaster University confirmed they were investigating allegations that Pruitt had fabricated data in at least 17 papers on which he is coauthor. After the second retraction, Kate Laskowski (a behavioral ecologist at the University of California, Davis, who had co-authored both studies with Pruitt) wrote that she had found multiple stretches of data that had been copied and pasted — purportedly to represent findings for multiple spiders. More than 20 scientists — coauthors, peers, and other interested observers in the field — mobilized to pore through the data in almost 150 papers on which Pruitt is a coauthor, looking for evidence of manipulated or fabricated numbers. They found similar signs of copy-and-paste duplications. In at least one instance, researchers identified formulae that had been inserted into a published Excel file, designed to add or subtract from a pasted value, in order to create new data-points. The [two attached editorials] make for enjoyable bedtime reading. 😉


Science 7 Feb 2020; 367: 613-4 & Nature 13 Feb 2020; 578: 199-201

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