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Scientific Speech

Libel law in the UK has led to a number of cases involving scientific speech. For example, Nature was sued for a news article criticizing a researcher who published a large number of papers in the journal where he served as the editor, and science writer Simon Singh was sued for his comments on chiropractics.

"It is not unusual for scientists and scientific publishers to simply avoid saying what they really think for fear of being sued," write Niri Shanmuganathan and Timothy Pinto in the Guardian. "Libel claims can cost hundreds of thousands of pounds to defend."

Shanmuganathan and Pinto are lawyers at Taylor Wessing, the firm that represented Nature in its libel case. That case was dismissed last week after three years of litigation.

While reformers in the UK are working to change the law there to protect scientific speech, particularly focusing on peer-reviewed articles and conference reports, Shanmuganathan and Pinto say that reform won't be enough. Lawsuits, they say, tend to arise from news articles or opinion pieces rather than from scientific papers. Because of this, Shanmuganathan and Pinto suggest that parliament consider altering the law so that the claimant has to show that the publisher of a scientific article of public interest was being reckless by printing the article, and that it develop a way to streamline the legal procedure regarding libel.

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