New Poll Suggests U.K. Libel Laws Threaten Science Publishers

As the U.K.'s Libel Reform Campaign celebrates its first birthday, one of its member, the charity Sense About Science, today released a preview of a poll trying to estimate the number of the medical and scientific journal editors threatened with libel action. The charity, for example, says that 32% of polled medical and scientific editors report that their journal has been threatened with libel action. Although the charity only received 26 responses to its survey, the poll offers some of the few hard numbers on the impact of the U.K.'s libel laws on the scientific publishing industry, an issue which Science recently explored in a news feature, and adds some weight to the campaign's battle for the law reform.

In the past year, the Libel Reform Campaign has represented a number of high-profile cases in which journalists and scientists have been sued over things they have said or written. Perhaps most prominent was the journalist Simon Singh, who was sued by the British Chiropractic Association for his use of the word "bogus" when he referred to association's claims.

Although Singh's case and a few other ones involving scientists suggest U.K. libel laws may be stifling freedom of scientific expression, it's been difficult to evaluate how often such problems are occurring. Sense About Science's poll, however found that 44% of medical and science editors polled, two-thirds of whom have over 2 years of editorial experience and are said to represent "all subject areas," have asked for changes to the way papers or articles are written to protect themselves from a libel action. And 38% of the poll's respondents have chosen not to publish an article because of a perceived risk of libel action. (The charity did not release absolute numbers of how many of the 26 editors responded to particular questions.)

The results of the Sense About Science report suggest that threat of libel action is more of a problem for science publishers than previously documented.

Last year, Science polled 22 leading scientific and medical journals and journal publishers about whether they are being affected by Britain's libel laws, and found the experience of legal "run-ins" was very variable among the journals. And none of the journals or journal publishers contacted by Science reported rejecting a research paper solely because of libel concerns.

The full results of Sense About Science's surveys will be announced in January 2011, along with a larger report that examines the impact of U.K. libel law on the publishing industry by The Publishers Association, the U.K.'s leading trade organization representing book, journal, audio, and electronic publishers.

Meanwhile, the United Kingdom appears to be moving ahead with libel-reform efforts. According to Sense About Science, U.K. Minister for Justice Lord McNally, says that "in its current state, English libel law is not fit for purpose." The British government has been working on a draft Defamation Bill and hopes to put it out for consultation in March.