Nature Journal Wins Free Speech Lawsuit
Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
A critical view of a British scientist published by the scientific journal Nature in a November 2008 article has been ruled as responsible and honest by a Bristol crown court judge on Friday, after the scientist sued for libel.
Physicist Mohamed El Naschie said an article published in the journal had damaged his reputation. However, the publishers argued that the report was fair, honest, and in the public interest.
The article described how El Naschie, former editor-in-chief of the journal Chaos, Solitons and Fractals, penned a conspicuously large number of papers in his journal, many of which were considered by outside experts to be substandard. The article also noted that many of his works did not appear to have been independently checked by scientists working in the same field of expertise — peer-reviewed. Furthermore, it also reported that he listed several affiliations and honorary professorships with international institutions that could not be verified.
In 2008, when the story was printed, El Naschie had wrote and published nearly 60 papers in his own journal, including five of the 36 articles that appeared in the December issue alone.
“It’s plain obvious that there was either zero, or at best very poor, peer review, of his own papers,” Peter Woit, a mathematical physicist at Columbia University in New York, was quoted as saying.
In a court ruling, Mrs. Justice Sharp dismissed El Naschie’s libel claim, concluding that the news story was “substantially true,” and contained “honest comment.” She added that the story was the “product of responsible journalism.” El Naschie failed to provide any evidence that his papers were peer-reviewed, Sharp further noted.
The case follows that of a similar one, two years ago, that was brought against Simon Singh for allegedly making negative comments on the efficacy of chiropractic treatments. He won an appeal in his case against the British Chiropractic Association, which failed to prove he acted unjustly with comments made.
Singh commented on the Nature ruling, stating the judgment showed the English libel laws were continuing to be used to suppress science reporting. He added that a proposed Defamation Bill currently going through Parliament would not prevent similar actions from occurring.
“There is no public interest defense and no restriction on the ability of corporations to bully critics into silence,” he added. “The government needs to address these issues or the result will be a semi-impotent Bill.”
Niri Shan, Nature’s attorney, who is with the law firm Taylor Wessing, said: “The judgment is an important victory for free speech and is a shot in the arm for the public interest defense of qualified privilege… 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. Moreover, even the current reforms being considered by Parliament do not go far enough.”
A libel action can be brought by any individual if they have been named and they can show that it has damaged their reputation. Proposed reforms are meant to protect people if the claims have been made in a peer reviewed published paper or at a scientific meeting. But, according to Shan, they would not protect claims made in news reports.
What is needed, noted Shan, is a US style public interest defense. A public interest defense would put the burden on the person suing for libel to show that the writer either intended to be malicious or was reckless in writing the article.
“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,” Alastair Mullis, a law professor at the University of East Anglia, told BBC News. “If the public interest defence contended for by the libel reform campaign becomes law, those seriously and irresponsibly libeled by a defendant will have no remedy.”
“Nature has vigorously defended this article for over three years and we are all delighted that the court has found our journalism to be honest, justified and in the public interest,” said Nature editor-in-chief Philip Campbell.