#PruittData and the Ethics of Data in Science

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If you follow anyone in the fields of ecology or biology, chances are you’ve seen or heard of #PruittData, #PruittGate, #SpiderGate, or some other similar hashtag. We at Ecology for the Masses decided that we wanted to add our voice to the discussion, not to disparage anyone, but to take the opportunity to discuss ethics in science and data reporting.

The Story

If you’re a scientist on Twitter, chances are you’ve spent the last week being inundated with hashtags, tweets, articles, blog posts, and discussion over the entire #PruittData situation. 

In brief, it appears that a highly productive scientist has fabricated a large amount of data. The scientist in question, Jonathan Pruitt, has undoubtedly collected a great deal of data, but it appears that much of that data was manipulated in Excel spreadsheets in order to give clear results where there were none. Several of the scientific papers that used this data have been retracted from prominent scientific journals, with more retractions likely over the next few weeks.

There is of course more to the narrative. If you’d like to know more, check out the article linked below by Dan Bolnick.*

The Pruitt Retraction Storm

What we want to instead discuss here is how this happened, what the reaction has been like, and what this actually means for the scientific community.

So how did this happen? And by that I mean, how did this go undiscovered for so long? That comes down to the fact that Pruitt worked with social spiders, a study organism that only a few people have detailed knowledge of. To put into perspective how unknown the the spider system is: when I broke down Pruitt’s paper (which is currently under investigation for data manipulation) for our Paper of the Week a year and a half ago I was unable to find a common name for the spider involved in the study.

That meant that unless you knew exactly what to look for, the data he reported didn’t seem like they had been manipulated. You may be thinking “But if you’re working with someone and putting your name on a paper with them, shouldn’t you be checking for these kind of issues?” That’s a valid question, but part of the scientific process involves working with and trusting collaborators, and we’re finding out that trust can blow up in your face.

The Community

First and foremost, I must say that the vast majority of the scientific community has been incredibly professional and respectful throughout the course of this entire incident. Despite a few pot shots here and there on Twitter, most everyone has been justifiably upset, yet considerate of those involved in these papers. Many researchers, including former Pruitt collaborators, have been dedicating hours and hours of their lives to take a close look at the data and methods of the ~148 papers that Pruitt has been involved in. No easy task!

A great deal of the discussion has focused not on Pruitt himself, but on those who worked with him and collaborated on the papers that are now under investigation. Finding out that someone you worked with and trusted was falsifying data is hard enough, but building off of that you have to factor in that all of his collaborators now have this etched into their careers.

The Fallout

Last Friday ScienceInsider magazine published a summary of the events thus far, including the first comments from Pruitt himself since the retractions started. He claims that the discovered mistakes are well within the realm of what’s normal in the realm of data management, but many feel that this a huge understatement; others find it downright insulting.

At the time of this writing, three papers have been retracted and an additional four have been requested for retraction. 23 journals are investigating Pruitt’s papers for errors and it appears that many more papers will be retracted. Despite the damage this has done to Pruitt’s credibility as a scientist, it is also having significant damage on all of the people that he worked with. As mentioned above, the community has responded well, and there haven’t been accusations made at Pruitt’s colleagues to this point.

Yet the fact remains that many of Pruitt’s co-authors were early career scientists. For those involved in academia, having publications in crucial, especially early in your career. If you’re writing your PhD thesis or on your first Post-Doctoral degree, you might only have anywhere from two to five papers published. Having one of those retracted because the data that you were provided with by a senior researcher turned out to be unreliable can be devastating.

For a heartbreaking chronicle of how these fabricated data are affecting others, please take a look at Kate Laskowski’s post. It was her initial retraction and reaching out to other former collaborators of Pruitt’s that started #PruittData. Kate is fortunate, in that since the retracted paper was initially published, she has authored and co-authored more than 20 other publications. Some won’t be this lucky.

What’s Next?

The scientific community is still dealing with the fallout and shock of #PruittData, and I suspect that it will be quite a while before we see the end of these retractions. Data manipulation on this scale has never happened before, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see that this incident inspires changes in policy to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. Before this incident there was a strong movement building within science to make more data open and accessible (see our previous interview with GBIF guru Tim Robertson for more), and this incident will certainly galvanise that movement.

The ubiquity of social media and open data practices mean that not only are we going to be hearing about developments as they occur, but that we can also thoroughly investigate as much of the data as possible. On top of that, it has also made the science community hyper-aware of the incident. It’s interesting to think about the impact that this would have had a decade ago, when ScienceTwitter wasn’t really a thing, or three decades ago, when emails weren’t.

Lastly, collaboration is an essential part of scientific progress, because it brings many different perspectives and ideas together. The growth of interdsiciplinarity has bolstered the impact and breadth of science over the last three decades. I can only hope that this incident hasn’t made people want to shy away from working with collaborators in the future, but instead inspires them to do their part to make sure that all of their work is ethical and honest.

*Dan has also taken the time to organize a spreadsheet with up-to-date information on all of the papers that Pruitt has been involved in and their current status.

Adam Hasik an evolutionary ecologist interested in the ecological and evolutionary dynamics of host-parasite interactions. You can read more about his research and the rest of the Ecology for the Masses writers here, see more of his work at Ecology for the Masses here, or follow him on Twitter here.


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