#pruittdata latest: Did Jonathan Pruitt just quietly lose his Canada 150 Chair? (UPDATE: yes he has–temporarily, pending “further notice” from McMaster University)

McMaster University recently completed its investigation into serious accusations of scientific misconduct against prominent behavioral ecologist Jonathan Pruitt. My understanding is that Canadian universities have to notify federal scientific funding agencies of the outcomes of completed misconduct investigation, so that the funding agencies can take appropriate action. It looks like action may have been taken last week? Specifically, it looks like Pruitt may have lost his Canada 150 research chair:

Canada 150 Research Chairs are a small number of very prestigious (and well-funded) research chairs that the Canadian government funded to mark 150 years since Canadian federation. I just checked myself, and can confirm that Pruitt is no longer listed on the Canadian government’s webpage listing the Chairholders.

To which, if Pruitt has indeed lost his Canada 150 Research Chair, why has there been no public announcement? What useful purpose could possibly be served by lack of transparency around actions taken in response to a completed investigation? Conversely, is there not a public interest not only in institutions taking appropriate remedial and disciplinary actions when such actions are required, but in their being seen to do so?

UPDATE: Science’s news team followed up Nick’s tweet and got NSERC (the Canadian federal funding agency that administers the Canada 150 Chairs program) to issue a brief statement:

Click through for the full statement (it was short enough to quote in two tweets…), but the key points are that (i) McMaster did indeed inform NSERC that Pruitt has been placed on administrative leave, and (ii) NSERC has accordingly “temporarily suspended” Canada 150 Chair payments to Pruitt pending further notice from McMaster.

To which, I’m glad we now have at least a brief statement from NSERC. But why did we only get it in response to a question from a reporter from the world’s leading scientific journal? Obviously it would be silly for institutions to issue press releases about every little action they take. But personally I feel like the public interest and newsworthiness of this case rises to the level where it would be appropriate for the institutions concerned to issue public statements, without reporters having to ask for them. After all, that’s why there’ve been news stories about this case in Science that then got picked up in general media outlets like the Toronto Star and the CBC. Am I just being naive here?

And I remain mystified why McMaster still needs to provide “further notice” to NSERC. McMaster’s been investigating for 22 months. How can the investigation possibly still be at some sort of interim stage?

/end update

17 thoughts on “#pruittdata latest: Did Jonathan Pruitt just quietly lose his Canada 150 Chair? (UPDATE: yes he has–temporarily, pending “further notice” from McMaster University)

  1. Maybe there was some negotiation with Pruitt through his lawyers to keep this under the radar?

    Seems like otherwise a press release or statement would have been forthcoming within a week. It’s not like US Thanksgiving is interfering here.

    • It’s so weird how the institutions are handling this. What do they think they’re accomplishing by just *silently* rescinding his awards, *silently* withdrawing his PhD from the institutional repository, *silently* placing him on leave, *silently* moving his grad students to other advisors, etc.? I mean, what is the silence supposed to accomplish? And if the answer is “silence is required by law/policy X”, or “silence is required by an agreement with Pruitt’s lawyers”, or whatever, that just changes the question to “What is that law/policy/agreement mandating institutional silence supposed to accomplish?” I just don’t get it.

      Maybe the answer is as simple as “We’d prefer that as few people as possible notice this bad news, and we think fewer people will notice if we don’t make any public announcements?” Rather like how an organization might issue a press release announcing bad news, but do it on a Friday afternoon to minimize the number of people who notice the news.

      I dunno. I’m just engaging in frustrated but uninformed speculation here.

      • Common practice. I started as department head 3 1/2 years ago. In the first 6 months I found out that 2 faculty in the department had some serious unethical behavior. Working with the higher admin, they were quietly removed and let go, with no public info and are both now gainfully employed, one at another University and one at an NGO. Do note this is a UK-China joint venture University I am at, so nothing fits most USA-EU Universities.

      • Oh, I agree that it’s common practice. Whether it’s justified is another matter. At least in cases as high-profile as the Pruitt case, I don’t think it’s justified. After all, NSERC puts out press releases when Canada 150 Chairs are hired (https://www.canada150.chairs-chaires.gc.ca/news_room-salle_de_presse/news_releases-communiques_de_presse/index-eng.aspx). If it’s news when a Canada 150 Chair is hired, I’d argue it’s also news when a Canada 150 Chair is suspended.

      • I agree, I wished that all Universities were a lot more open when this happens. Neither of the current employers of the two faculty that we basically fired, contacted me, and as far as I can tell, both have still the same issues. The problem here, and I assume in many, if not all, similar cases that there were a lot of internal mistakes made. So the University does not want this to come out.

        To give a little detail, my department went through 7 heads in 5 years, so basically within the department on one was in charge, and faculty could get away with anything.

        One of the two was running a private company, have the university pay all his expenses, while all the income went to his private company. A previous VPAA investigated this two years before, but abruptly quit for personal reasons and no one ever followed up. I got a copy of the entire email chain dealing with this from HR, so HR certainly was aware of this, but didn’t do anything. And I guess the next VPAA was never briefed on this.

        The second one was running a center funded by local government, supposedly he had a board of directors and 29 collaborators who got funding from him. I emailed all of them, no one had ever gotten any funding. The center was set up as a private company, common practice in China, thus accounting went through the university, but not oversight, which was supposed to be by the head of the department and a vice president. Since the previous 7 heads just signed off on everything, he got away with this for an extended time. You can imagine where all the funding went. So again the university majorly messed up here.

        And I forgot a third one, she had two full time positions, the previous head put her on probation and told her to drop the other position outside the U, which she didn’t do, hence we had to fire her. Here also she did this for at least 3 years, before she was called on this.

        So my take on this, typically a lot of internal mistakes are made that unethical people take advantage off, and no university likes to admit these internal mistakes. Hence all universities try to keep files closed, claiming privacy issues.

        I addition, after having dealt with these 3 cases, I am a lot more careful in hiring staff/faculty. You need to do your homework in hiring. You need to carefully look for red flags in all applicants, and if anything does not add up, you better start digging and asking around. I recently deleted a number of applicants, where when you notice that recommendation letters are not from the normal people that you expect (like advisors, direct colleagues at the precious university), and you phone around a bit, it becomes quickly clear that the person has issues.

        Anyhow, life as a department head is never boring in China.

      • “no university likes to admit these internal mistakes. Hence all universities try to keep files closed, claiming privacy issues.”

        This sounds right to me.

        I suppose one way to address this problem is to have an independent agency tasked with preventing or detecting internal mistakes by others. That was one of the arguments that led to the creation of the US ORI, IIRC. Institutions have strong incentives to cover up (or deal quietly with) misconduct by the scientists they employ. So you need an independent agency that’s happy to investigate misconduct and announce the results of its investigations, because that’s its job. Then again, there are some countries that have such agencies, but I’m not aware of any where such agencies are regarded as particularly effective. (Someone correct me if I’m wrong!)

        But I dunno. At least in some cases of scientific fraud, I feel like employers and funding agencies are missing an opportunity to earn goodwill and trust by being more transparent. Rather than feeling embarrassed at having hired/funded someone who later turned out be a fraud, they might be pleasantly surprised to discover just how widely they’d be praised for dealing with the problem swiftly and transparently. Because after all, in many cases of scientific fraud, there’s no plausible employer or funding agency policy that would’ve prevented the fraud or revealed it earlier.

        I’m thinking of how Kate Laskowski was initially very worried about how other scientists would react when she revealed that the data in a paper she’d co-authored with Jonathan Pruitt appeared to be fake. Kate hadn’t collected the data herself, but was worried she’d be criticized for failing to discover the fakery before the paper was published. In fact, with only rare exceptions, she was widely praised and supported for publicly revealing the problems with the data. I wonder if the same might not be true for employers and funding agencies in at least some cases of scientific fraud. Maybe they’re wrong to think that they’d face criticism for hiring or funding a scientific fraudster, at least in some cases.

      • Again I agree. Recently I saw two articles published by previous students/staff at my U, one is a complete copy of someone else’s work, the other one was basically an identical paper published twice by the same authors in two different journals. Both clearly should be retracted. Not in my department, so not my call, I pointed this out to the higher ups, total silence. Again, they just wish that this goes away silently. Both are marginal papers in marginal journals, so likely no one outside will ever notice. And yes, I am increasingly frustrated by this, but then you need to focus on what you can control. My department is doing fine and we created a culture that, I hope, avoids this behavior. But yes, we have some major issues in academia worldwide and we do need to find a way to get our higher ups to deal more openly with these situations. I am open to suggestions on how to get there.

      • The thing that I am not seeing discussed in these cases is the point at which “academic misconduct” becomes criminal activity. One would think that it’s clear-cut and that obtaining money (i.e. a salary) by deception (i.e. academic fraud) should be reported to the authorities. Clearly universities don’t see it that way – how many academic frauds have been prosecute? But in many cases this could amount to misuse of public funds, which is seen as a very serious offence in the political sphere.

      • “Both are marginal papers in marginal journals, so likely no one outside will ever notice. ”

        I think this gets at something important. The large majority of scientific fraud cases don’t have much effect on anything. Scientific fraud is rare by any measure, even if you allow for the possibility that most fraud goes undetected (https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2020/02/17/some-data-and-historical-perspective-on-scientific-misconduct/). The bulk of scientific fraud is associated with marginal research that almost no one pays attention to, that doesn’t affect human health or wellbeing (see previous link for supporting data). It’s not clear that science as a whole would progress faster if fraud were even rarer (https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2020/03/04/scientific-fraud-vs-financial-fraud-the-canadian-paradox/) And even in a rare, high-profile fraud case like the accusations against Jonathan Pruitt, the real harm was mostly to his current and former trainees (see here: https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2020/10/05/how-much-damage-do-retracted-papers-do-to-science-before-theyre-retracted-and-to-who/). The money that went to support Pruitt’s now-retracted research is a rounding error in the budgets of the funding agencies concerned, those retractions leave most results in behavioral ecology untouched, and Pruitt’s research was irrelevant to human health and wellbeing.

        So as bothered as I am by scientific fraud (and it *really* bothers me), and as strongly as I believe institutions should be more open about the outcomes of their fraud investigations, I’d struggle to argue that scientific fraud is *that* big a problem in the grand scheme of things. I think I’m bothered by fraud mostly because it’s just intrinsically wrong, not because it has large negative effects on many people, or holds back scientific progress in a big way. I’m bothered by scientific fraud because it’s just so contrary to the basic principles of science, and to what it means to be a scientist. (for philosophical readers: my reasons for being bothered by scientific fraud are mostly deontological, not utilitarian).

      • I am a bit more pessimistic on how common fraud, and in addition, unethical research practices are. See “Questionable research practices in ecology and evolution. H Fraser, T Parker, S Nakagawa, A Barnett, F Fidler – PloS one, 2018 – journals.plos.org and ”https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-02035-2″

        Based on these two studies, I think the number for fraud is somewhere in the order of 5% of researchers. Then, since I am in China, and retractions from Chinese papers are 3 times higher than the average “https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-03613-1” I get to 15% here. Both numbers are depressingly high.

        Looking at the major recent cases, there are some major issues with the structure of their datasets. Data manipulations like replacing outliers with mean values, trimming your dataset, etc, are virtually impossible to detect. So are we only seeing the tip of the iceberg?

        And in China if you are high enough up “https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2021/01/high-profile-chinese-scientist-cleared-fraud-and-plagiarism-charges-involving-more-60” you basically get told don’t do this again and that’s it. Depressing.

        So whenever I read a paper with very nice data that exactly fits their hypotheses/predictions, I have to wonder is this real or am I being mislead here. Maybe I am getting too cynical.

    • To add one more point. I recently edited for a journal a manuscript that had 5 separate experiments, all addressing one question and the results of all 5 nicely matched their hypothesis. Some data was included as an appendix, looking at this, the individual datasets looked fine, however, when I combined the different data from the same replicate, I got some impossible numbers. So either sloppy data management or something worse. However, none of the reviewers caught this. This took some extra digging which I normally do not do, and often there is not enough data included with the manuscript to do this. I think it is time for journals to insists that all data and code is included with the manuscript submission and that someone looks through the data for any red flags.

  2. Correct me if I’m wrong, but if these research chairs are funded by PUBLIC money one would expect that the university, and indeed the Canadian government, had a duty to make a PUBLIC statement about what has occurred. Anything less just reeks of sweeping the problem under the carpet.

    Of course the best possible Friday afternoon on which to make a statement is December 24th. A cynic might think that the university is waiting until then to make its announcement….

    • Yes, I agree.

      The Canadian government presumably would reply that they periodically release statistical summaries of scientific misconduct cases, which they believe satisfies the public’s right to know.

      There are other government agencies in other jurisdictions that release the names of those fundees found to have committed scientific misconduct. The US ORI, for instance. But sadly, such agencies are rare. Even in the US, ORI is the only federal scientific funding agency that releases the names of fundees who committed misconduct, as far as I’m aware.

  3. Pingback: #pruittdata latest: another one bites the dust | Dynamic Ecology

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