Publish and be jailed

I read an interesting account of the recent arrest of a research chemist in the USA. Chemical and Engineering News reports the case of Ke-xue Huang, a former Dow AgroSciences employee, who was arrested by the FBI for “theft of trade secrets to benefit a foreign government” and “foreign transportation of stolen property”. The bit that caught my eye was this:

the case centers on the disclosure of confidential Dow information on spinosyn insecticide biosynthesis in a review article first published online in late 2008 (Appl. Microbiol. Biotechnol. 2009, 82, 13).

and

In the process of writing the article, Huang is alleged to have passed along confidential information. “The grand jury found probable cause to believe that Defendant conveyed trade secret information to others in the People’s Republic of China,” U.S. attorneys wrote in a legal memorandum. They have requested that the court limit Huang’s access to the Internet and direct him not to contact certain possible codefendants or witnesses.

Obviously without knowing the details of the case it is difficult to comment much on this, but it seems a bit odd to me that a review article would disclose confidential information as it is presumably just reviewing information previously published elsewhere.
The article mentions that penalties include fines of up to $500,000 per offense and imprisonment for up to 15 years.
Perhaps this is an object lesson in the importance of intellectual property savvy – knowing what you can say (write) and when and to whom.
Most researchers will not end up in prison for getting it wrong, but failure to get a patent can be costly.

About Frank Norman

I am a librarian in a biomedical research institute. I've been around a few years, long enough to know that exciting new things fall into the same familiar patterns. I'm interested in navigating a path for libraries as we move further from print to electronic resources to open research, and become more embedded in research workflows.
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3 Responses to Publish and be jailed

  1. Christina Pikas says:

    Typically, you would sign some sort of NDA with a company or IP agreement such that any publications resulting on your work there would be reviewed prior to submission. That typically would keep you out of trouble (even after you leave you might need to go back to a company for review). It is odd, as you say, that this was a review article.

  2. Frank Norman says:

    Christina – yes, even in academic research we see more of this kind of paperwork, in order to be sure everyone knows just who owns what and who can do what in case some bit of research hits the money.
    Publishing a journal article is a curiously public way of smuggling secrets.

  3. Frank Norman says:

    There is more detail and comment on this story in a news item in Nature today.