Nature journal wins libel case and points to holes in UK defamation law (Wired UK)


A three-year long libel case brought against a science journal has been dismissed, in a move that highlights the need for a public interest clause in UK defamation law to protect the free press.

“The judgment is an important victory for free speech, and is a shot in the arm for the public interest defence of qualified privilege,” said Niri Shan, the solicitor who represented Nature and its associated parties.

“Having said that, the fact that the claimant was able to bring this matter to trial highlights the urgent need for libel reform in the area of science reporting, as the law, as it currently stands, is stifling scientific debate.”

Mohamed El Naschie, former editor of the Chaos, Solitons and Fractals (CSF) journal, brought the case against Nature after it published a story about his retirement that included details of how he used the journal to self-publish papers that had not been subject to peer review.

After reviewing the evidence — including communication between Nature and individuals working in the field, who repeatedly referred to El Naschie’s papers as poor quality — Justice Sharp found the article to be “substantially true”. She confirmed that it was “of the highest public interest” that scientific journals adhere to ethical guidelines, such as peer review, and ruled in favour of Nature’s Reynolds privilege for responsible journalism defence.

In her ruling, Justice Sharp wrote: “the Claimant ought to have run CSF in a way which promoted and safeguarded the integrity of the academic record. Instead he was substantially concerned with promoting himself and his theories.”

“It is apparent that [he] had little if any interest in the norms of scientific publishing or the ethical considerations which underpinned them.”

El Naschie even admitted during the trial that despite not seeing the guidelines dictated by his overarching publisher Elsevier, he would never have followed them anyway.

Written By: By Liat Clark
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  1. Are churches and mosques clear thinking oases? I take it somebody tried to get an article about intelligent design published and was told no…just like the discovery institute, trying to get around peer review. It really is easy to baffle people with bull if there are no scientists like Dawkins to tell people why their ideas are not scientific

  2.  OP link –

      A similar case came to the courts in 2008 when the British
    Chirporactic Association
    sued Simon Singh for implying its members promoted bogus
    treatments. Two years later and £200,000 poorer, Singh won his
    battle. Another two years later however, and it does not seem to
    have impacted the law.

    It was an utter disgrace that that case was brought to court.  The plaintiffs should have been made to pay both sets of costs in full, to deter other from gratuitous belligerent litigation.

    The latest
    amendments to the Defamation Bill, announced in May 2012, do not
    go far enough to solve the issues of public interest and fair
    comment, say campaigners. A petition signed by more than 60,000
    people was presented to Downing Street on 27 June by Brian Cox,
    Dara O Briain and Dave Gorman, staunch supporters of the public
    interest issue.

    It’s good to see some publicly well known scientists pressing the politicians for constructive action.

  3. I’m American who is effectively an anglophile.  Monty Python, the Beatles, Douglas Adams, Darwin, Newton, Shakespeare, nearly-empty churches–what’s not to love?  (On the other side of the ledger there’s the tap water and the pizza, both of which are abominable–but nobody’s perfect, and I freely admit that the US has myriad flaws which are much worse). 

    One additional area of British imperfection regards their defamation and libel laws.  Yes, the intention of protecting individuals from harassment and slander is noble, and I don’t expect the Brits to embrace freedom of speech laws as broad as those granted by the US Constitution’s First Amendment.  Nevertheless the balance is currently tilted too far toward protecting charlatans, frauds, poseurs, and religious believers from scrutiny and criticism.

    The free exchange of ideas, including ideas that might be offensive to some, and the open criticism of the words, writings and actions of people in the public sphere accrue very significant value to society as a whole.  The UK needs to readjust their judicial scales to give more weight to those considerations than is currently the case. 

    That should include punitive judgments against those who abuse libel and defamation laws–deter such suits, by having litigants face a significant risk of having to pay the legal costs of BOTH sides should their claim prove to be baseless.

  4. Fair points all. As a Brit I concur that we wouldn’t accept something similar to the First Amendment – I find the slander that permeates American political debate poisonous, and would want to avoid that at all costs.

    I agree that, as always, a happy medium is needed, however.

  5. Gosh England, this must have been a terribly embarrassing incident for your country.  Kind of makes you look like a back-water country steeped in superstition – like the United States.

  6. If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen, ffs.

    “…protecting charlatans, frauds, poseurs, and religious believers from scrutiny and criticism.”
    This music video gives it right back to ’em (Rationalist Anthem) ~

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