A tragedy in animal behavior and heroic responses

As I write this 8 papers where data were collected by Jonathan Pruitt are somewhere in the pipeline for retraction and another 5 have been identified with data problems. Many others are being checked. Yet other papers, mostly with data collected by others and Pruitt as an author, have been cleared. This is a tragedy of many dimensions. If you have not heard about it, look at what Kate Laskowski and Dan Bolnick have written. Dan’s piece provides a link to a Google Sheet where you can follow the story article by article.

I say this is a tragedy and now I will talk about the victims. The first victim is science. How can we go forward with trying to understand our world and its players if we cannot trust the evidence behind what we read? What if people that disagree with us simply say our data cannot be trusted? What if no data can be trusted? Then what we do is no longer science. Science seems to be taking a bigger and bigger hit these days as the wonderful detective work of Elizabeth Bik also shows. Check out the images she posts on Twitter for fraudulent duplication.

If science is the first victim, scientists are the second victim. The scientists who are hurt the most are those who were collaborators with Jonathan Pruitt. They have seen years of work go down the drain. They fear for their own reputation. They mourn for the really cool ideas they thought were true. And they still might be, but evidence for that needs to be collected anew.

We need to support these collaborators in whatever way we can. They chose a path through this morass that will make science better ultimately, at some personal risk. Kate Laskowski’s brilliant piece is a model of great writing and ethical science. This is not the kind of hero she ever wanted to be, but heroics come from what we do with situations that are thrust upon us. We will all be grateful to Kate as we examine our own procedures for data purity.

I will not say Jonathan Pruitt is a victim, but he is part of the tragedy. Will we ever really know what motivated him? I decline to guess. He burst on the animal behavior scene with his first paper in 2008 and immediately began publishing at such a prolific rate that in another year or two he would have overtaken my own 41 year career in numbers of publications. This output got him a lot of academic success leading to his current position (current as I write anyway) of Canada 150 chair at McMaster University.

What Jonathan Pruitt produced was so far beyond average, it is hard to believe anyone would feel pushed to that level.  But others feel pressure to produce in academia. Perhaps there are ways we can diminish that. For example, I really loved it when the US National Science Foundation (NSF) started allowing only 10 papers on a Biographical Sketch. Reward great work, not much work.

In following posts I will talk about what I originally meant to write about: how to trust data from a collaborator. I will also write about best practices and how to teach them. I know we are all taking a moment of gratitude to our honest collaborators, a reflection on our own data collection, and sadness for this tragedy.

About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Collaboration, Ethics and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to A tragedy in animal behavior and heroic responses

  1. Johanna Mappes says:

    Thank you Joan for your words. This is exactly what we need right now.

  2. Pingback: Friday links: Jonathan Pruitt retraction fallout, AE “malpractice” at JTB, and more (UPDATEDx3) | Dynamic Ecology

  3. Pingback: Trust your collaborators? | Sociobiology

  4. Pingback: The ethical treatment of data: six essentials | Sociobiology

  5. Stanley Klein says:

    Academia is composed of bean counters. Very few bean tasters. We reward the urge to “create” beans.

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