Science & Environment

Nature journal libel victory prompts libel reform call

Nature journal cover (Image: Nature)
Image caption The article appeared in an edition of Nature that was published in November 2008

Scientific journal Nature has won a libel case over an article that was critical of a scientist .

Physicist Prof Mohamed El Naschie said an article published in November 2008 had damaged his reputation.

However, the publishers argued that the report was fair and honest, and in the public interest.

Libel reform campaigners said the case was the latest example of defamation laws being used to suppress science journalism.

They added that proposed reforms to the libel laws did not go far enough to prevent similar actions in the future.

The November 2008 article alleged that Prof El Naschie self-published many papers, some of which did not appear to have been independently checked by scientists working in the same field of expertise - a process known as peer review.

The article also reported that he listed several affiliations and honorary professorships with international institutions that could not be confirmed.

'Suppress reporting'

Libel reform campaigners have compared the action to a libel case two years ago year that was brought against Simon Singh.

Dr Singh was sued by the British Chiropractic Association over comments he had made about the effectiveness of chiropractic treatments.

He won an appeal that allowed him to use the fair comment defence in the case, which led to the case against him being dropped.

Commenting on the Nature ruling, Dr Singh said the judgement showed that English libel laws were continuing to be used to suppress science reporting.

He added that proposed reforms currently going through Parliament would not prevent similar actions.

"The proposed Defamation Bill still fails to offer protection to anyone who wants to write about medicine or science in the press or in a blog," he said.

"There is no public interest defence and no restriction on the ability of corporations to bully critics into silence.

"The government needs to address these issues or the result will be a semi-impotent Bill."

Nature has had to fight the case for four years and incurred undisclosed costs, which might run into hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Niri Shan, head of media law at Taylor Wessing - the solicitors representing Nature - said many smaller publishers did not have the resources to defend libel actions, so did not publish important science stories for fear of being sued.

A libel action can be brought by an individual if they have been named and they can show that it has damaged their reputation.

Proposed reforms would protect people if the claims have been made in a peer reviewed published research paper or at a scientific meeting.

But, according to Mr Shan, they would not protect claims made in news reports.

"All the cases that have triggered the reforms have been problems arising out of news reports," he said.

"Yet these reforms do nothing to protect news reports. What is needed is a US style public interest defence".

A public interest defence would put the onus on the person suing for libel to show that the writer either intended to be malicious or was reckless in writing the article.

Former Liberal Democrat MP and advisor to the Libel Reform Campaign, Dr Evan Harris, said: "It is sad to see parliamentary time being spent on a bill which so far fails to live up to the promises made to deliver effective libel reform made in all three of the party's manifestos."

But Alastair Mullis, a law professor at the University of East Anglia, said that in Nature's case, the existing public interest defence worked.

"It is surely not unfair to expect those who choose to make serious allegations against another either to prove that those allegations are true or, even if not true, that the publication was responsibly researched and written, he told BBC News.

"If the public interest defence contended for by the libel reform campaign becomes law, those seriously and irresponsibly libelled by a defendant will have no remedy."

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