‘Avalanche’ of spider-paper retractions shakes behavioural-ecology community

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INTRO: A complex web is unravelling in the field of spider research. On 5 February, McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, confirmed that it was investigating allegations that behavioural ecologist Jonathan Pruitt fabricated data in at least 17 papers on which he was a co-author.

Since concerns about his work became public in late January, scientists have rushed to uncover the extent of questionable data in Pruitt’s studies. Publishers are now trying to keep up with requests for retractions and investigations. According to a publicly available spreadsheet maintained by Daniel Bolnick, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, seven papers have been retracted or are in the process of being retracted; five further retractions have been requested by Pruitt’s co-authors; and researchers have flagged at least five more studies as containing possible data anomalies.

Pruitt, who is reportedly doing field research in Australia and the South Pacific, told Science last week that he had not fabricated or manipulated data in any way. He did not respond to multiple requests from Nature for comment on the mounting list of retractions, or the accusation that he fabricated data. His research looks at how different personalities form within communities of social spider species that live in groups, and it has implications for emerging ideas on how animal behaviours evolve in the context of their environment.

Many who are close to Pruitt are stunned. Noa Pinter-Wollman, a behavioural ecologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has co-written 20 papers with Pruitt, says that the process has been “emotionally devastating”. Pruitt collected the data for five of their co-authored papers. “It was hard to lose trust in someone you’ve worked so closely with and trusted for so long,” she says... (MORE)

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