McMaster University puts ecology professor on leave after investigation into a 'series of concerns'

Jonathan Pruitt is an evolutionary ecologist who was awarded a coveted Canada 150 Chair. He's been placed on paid leave following a "series of concerns," according to McMaster University.

University describes situation as a 'most serious matter,' but provides few details

Jonathan Pruitt, a McMaster University professor and Canada 150 Research Chair has been placed on paid leave following an investigation by the university. (Supplied by McMaster University)

McMaster University in Hamilton has placed a high-profile science professor on paid leave following an investigation into what it describes as a "most serious matter."

Jonathan Pruitt is an evolutionary ecologist who was awarded a coveted Canada 150 Research Chair — a federal program designed to attract the world's top researchers to Canada.

McMaster has described him as an "internationally recognized" academic who studies the "collective traits of different animal societies" — including ants, wasps and spiders — and how those traits affect their survival.

Pruitt joined McMaster in 2018, coming from the University of California, Santa Barbara. However, following a "series of concerns that were raised, both internal and external to the university," he was placed on administrative leave following the investigation which concluded last week, according to McMaster spokesperson Wade Hemsworth.

Pruitt did not respond to a requests for comment sent through his university email address.

McMaster did not provide any specific details on the concerns that led to Pruitt being placed on leave, but did say they were investigating under the university's policies, including its research integrity policy.

The Hamilton Spectator previously reported some scientific journals and academic colleagues raised issues with some of his data, which led to academic articles being retracted.

Calls for more transparency

One of the academics whose work with Pruitt was later retracted was Nicholas DiRienzo, who described news his former collaborator had been put on leave as a "relief" — mainly for the students working with the professor now.

DiRienzo was an assistant professor at the University of Arizona at the time of their collaboration and is now working as a data scientist in the private sector.

He said he and other academics found issues related to Pruitt's use of data and he had a stressful time spending "hundreds of hours exploring data, writing reports, working with editors," in an effort to do what "we could to correct the record on papers we were directly involved in and access to data on." 

Now "the field as a whole needs to know what of his science is valid and what isn't," he said. 

DiRienzo said he doesn't believe his interaction with Pruitt had a deep impact on his career. However, the same can't be said for graduate students whose body of work is essentially all shared with their supervisor, he said.

"McMaster should have made this decision a year ago when at that point multiple papers had been retracted across multiple journals. All those retractions required us to deeply demonstrate that he manipulated data," DiRienzo wrote in an email to CBC.

DiRienzo called on McMaster to be more transparent about the investigation into Pruitt, adding that the repeated requests he's made for more information have been met with a "generic answer" from the university saying they're not going to release their report publicly.

More information is needed so scientists can better understand what happened, he said, noting some journals have said they're waiting for an outcome of the investigation before retracting papers.

"They're digging deep into his history of work and have access to much more information," said DiRienzo. 

Pruitt restricted from teaching, research

Manipulating, changing or omitting data and findings is considered research misconduct under McMaster's policy.

Under the policy, a finding of research misconduct can result in consequences ranging from a letter of concern to sanctions including withdrawing research privileges, suspension or dismissal.

Hemsworth said Pruitt will remain on leave until the process is complete, though the university does not know how long that will take.

"Additional interim measures are in place restricting Pruitt from any engagement in teaching and research, including any access to research funding," he added.

Jonathan Pruitt (third from the left in the front row) poses with some of the other Canada 150 Research Chairs in Gatineau, Quebec in 2018. (Patrick Doyle/Canadian Press)

Pruitt's own dissertation at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, now carries a note stating "this paper has been withdrawn."

A spokesperson for the University of Tennessee said Pruitt currently holds a PhD, but did not respond directly to questions about the note on his dissertation or what it means for his work.

"The University of Tennessee is committed to integrity in all of its research endeavours, including student work," read a brief statement emailed to CBC.

"The university is prohibited from disclosing student information, including the presence or absence of a research integrity investigation."

'Progress continues'

Hemsworth said Pruitt's students from this term are being transitioned to a new instructor who will be in place this week.

As for the Canada 150 Research Chair, Hemsworth said decisions around its status will be made by the funding agencies when the entire process is complete, noting the investigation is only one step.

McMaster has contacted the funders and let them know the investigation is complete and the limits in place on Pruitt's work as a teacher and researcher, he said.

DiRienzo said despite what happened, the field has "done a wonderful job rallying behind" those whose work was impacted.

Pruitt was a "major player" in several areas of research but he was only one academic.

"The lines of research that were valid have been progressing just fine as plenty of other scientists kept plugging along doing science the right way," said DiRienzo. 

"If anything this whole experience has shown how [when] even aggressive scientific fraud gets weeded out, the record corrects itself, and progress continues."