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Honest opinions

Proposals for a UK law on defamation highlight the power of scientific protest.

Give yourselves a hearty pat on the back. In March last year, Nature urged readers who live in the United Kingdom to write to their Member of Parliament with a plea for them to support reforms to the libel laws of England and Wales. Last week, a proposed law that would make most of the sensible and necessary changes was included in the Queen's Speech (an annual to-do list for the British Parliament). With the help of calm seas and a following wind, the libel-law reform, which has broad cross-party support, could be voted in as early as the autumn. (Nature's UK-based readers cannot claim all the credit, of course — the proposed reform comes after a determined and impressive campaign from many individuals and organizations, including the human-rights groups Amnesty International and Global Witness, and the discussion forum Mumsnet.)

Several scientific groups, including the London-based charity Sense about Science, also helped the campaign. Many of the examples that were used to demonstrate that change was needed were scientists who found themselves threatened with legal action for what they viewed as honest academic criticism. Nature officially backed the campaign, and, as this issue went to press, still awaits the verdict of a libel suit brought against this journal by Egyptian researcher Mohamed El Naschie.

The proposed legislation directly addresses the concerns of researchers and scientific groups. It would extend a legal defence known as qualified privilege to statements published in peer-reviewed academic journals, as long as they were reviewed by the journal editor and one or more independent experts. This protection would also extend to those who subsequently publish a fair and accurate copy or extract of the original piece.

The new law would also extend the scope of a second existing legal defence against libel — known as fair comment — to cover aspects of scientific practice. Under the proposals, this would help to protect reports of critical statements made at press conferences and academic meetings that are judged to be in the public interest. Those who publish the details of conference proceedings would also be able to draw on this honest opinion defence.

There are other planned changes, too. One is a formal version of a defence currently based on responsible journalism, known in the trade as a Reynolds defence, which helps reporters and publishers to defend a libel claim if they can show, for example, that they checked facts and offered a proper right of reply. And would-be claimants will have to show that their reputation has suffered serious harm. Once in court, however, the burden of proof will remain largely on those who defend libel actions, not on those who prosecute them. Defendants will still have to show that any allegedly defamatory statements are true, which could leave them fighting an uphill battle, albeit equipped with sharper and more numerous weapons.

Still, scientists everywhere should celebrate the planned changes. Journalism on scientific matters has been threatened and stifled for too long. As we wrote in the Editorial in March 2011: “At Nature, we have too often been hindered in our core mission because of legal risks.” We are not there yet, but we can look forward with optimism.

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Honest opinions. Nature 485, 280 (2012).

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