A former editor of a theoretical physics journal has lost his libel claim against Nature Publishing Group, the publisher of Nature.

Mohamed El Naschie sued Nature Publishing Group and its news reporter Quirin Schiermeier over an article published in Nature in 2008, entitled ‘Self-publishing editor set to retire’. Campaigners have used the case as one of a number of examples showing the need for reform of the much-criticized libel laws in England and Wales, which many believe make it too easy to suppress debate through costly and time-consuming libel cases.

Today, at a court in Bristol, UK, judge Mrs Justice Sharp dismissed the libel action brought by El Naschie, writing in her judgment that the Nature article was “responsible journalism” and contained information of a “high order of public interest”.

The original article said that El Naschie was set to retire as the editor of the journal Chaos, Solitons and Fractals (CSF). It pointed out that a number of papers in the journal had been written by him, and that some scientists considered some of El Naschie’s papers to be of poor quality.

Today’s judgment states that “It is apparent that the Claimant [El Naschie] had little if any interest in the norms of scientific publishing or the ethical considerations which underpinned them”. It goes on to say that “The Claimant’s self-publication in CSF was excessive and unwarranted and amounted to an abuse of his position as Editor-in-Chief”.

In a section headed “The implausible absence of documentation”, the ruling also says that El Naschie “failed to provide any documentary evidence whatever that his papers were the subject of peer review”. The ruling states, “I am satisfied that his papers were not the subject of any, or any proper, peer review at all.”

Still chilling

Campaigners pushing for a reform of libel laws in England and Wales say that Nature’s win provides more evidence that only those with deep pockets can afford to defend themselves under existing laws. “It’s not really a ‘win’ [for Nature] if it took three years and cost enough money to bankrupt a normal person,” says Síle Lane, campaigns manager at Sense About Science in London, one of a number of non-governmental organizations running the Libel Reform Campaign. Nature Publishing Group also supports the campaign. The company would not comment on how much the case has cost so far.

Individuals who lack the financial support of an institution capable of defending against a libel action will probably look at the amount of time and money it took to defend this case and decide that they shouldn’t speak out, says Lane.

“Well resourced publications and individuals can defend these claims,” adds Niri Shan, head of media law at the London office of solicitors Taylor Wessing, who represented Nature. “If you’re not well resourced you might not have the option to defend and have to settle even if the merits of the case don't warrant settlement.”

Public interest

Earlier this year the UK government unveiled a draft libel-reform bill, which is now making its way through Parliament. The reforms would put in place protection for statements made in peer-reviewed articles, but would not necessarily protect news stories such as the article in Nature. The campaigners have warned that the proposed law does not do enough to prevent claimants from using English courts to suppress legitimate scientific debate. Last month, they held a rally in Parliament and presented a petition to the government calling for the reform to be improved.

Shan agrees that the draft law does not go far enough. He suggests that UK politicians should consider amending the legislation to include a defence that says that for articles published in the public interest, someone claiming libel must show that the defendant published a falsehood maliciously or recklessly.Sense About Science has suggested a similar idea, and is pushing for a ‘public-interest defence’ to be included in the reformed legislation.

El Naschie now has until the end of August to decide whether to apply for leave to appeal.