News FocusScientific Publishing

A Chilling Effect?

Science  11 Jun 2010:
Vol. 328, Issue 5984, pp. 1348-1351
DOI: 10.1126/science.328.5984.1348

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Summary

Several high-profile lawsuits have prompted prominent researchers and U.K. groups such as Index on Censorship and Sense about Science to complain that U.K. libel laws—and the high costs of defending a libel action—are forcing researchers and scientific journals to censor or edit academic material. So far, there's little evidence that scientific publishers have been seriously affected: None of 22 journals or journal publishers contacted by Science has rejected a research paper solely because of libel concerns, for example. But the publicity surrounding the scientists being sued and several other recent cases involving nonresearchers has led the U.K. government to take a hard look at the nation's libel laws. Last year, then–Justice Secretary Jack Straw set up a libel working group whose members included the head of the U.K.'s Medical Research Council. The group's report, delivered at the end of March, recommended major changes to the U.K.'s libel laws, several of which could give researchers more protection from lawsuits. Voters in the 6 May U.K. election kicked out Straw's Labour Party, however. The new Conservative–Liberal Democrat ruling coalition has also promised a "review of libel laws to protect freedom of speech," but it is as yet unclear what this will mean in practice.