Objective: Criminal sanctions for scientific misconduct are controversial, and rare. A census of cases in which they are applied does not yet exist, to the best of our knowledge. This study aims to identify cases of scientific misconduct in which perpetrators faced criminal penalties, and to characterize how related those penalties were to misconduct.
Method: Lexis-Nexis was searched using the terms "science," "researcher," and "sentenced," leading to 999 results. Retraction Watch (retractionwatch.com) was also searched using the keyword "sentenced." A search for criminally sanctioned researchers and for documents and articles confirming such sanctions was also performed on Google. Where possible, court documents were obtained through online resources. Excluded were cases unrelated to scientific misconduct and those in which charges were dismissed.
Results: A total of 39 science researchers from 7 countries were identified as having been subject to criminal sanctions for actions related to research misconduct between 1979 and 2015, along with 4 researchers still on trial or awaiting sentencing. Criminal sanctions ranged from suspended sentences to 15 years in prison, with an outlier case involving 1st degree murder resulting in a life sentence. Restitution and fines were also common. Overall, 14 researchers were criminally sanctioned for actions directly involving their own research. Three of those 14 had criminal charges solely related to research, while the other 11 also had charges stemming indirectly from their research process, e.g., grant fraud, embezzlement of research funds, or bribery. 22 others were charged for indirect violations alone. Two investigations resulted in charges for multiple researchers - seven researchers in China charged with embezzlement, and four in the United States (U.S.) convicted of bribery. Only five of the more than 250 cases of research misconduct sanctioned by the U.S. Office of Research Integrity over the same period also had criminal sanctions (<2%). No pattern for sentencing based on misconduct characteristics could be discerned.
Conclusions: Criminal sanctions for research misconduct are rare. Future studies should compare cases in which misconduct is punished with criminal penalties, and those in which it is not.