The trial of a libel action against the publishers of the journal Nature by the former editor of another science journal opened at the High Court in London on 11 November.
Mohamed El Naschie, an Egyptian mathematician, physicist, and engineer, launched the libel claim over a November 2008 article in Nature reporting his retirement as editor in chief of the Elsevier owned journal Chaos, Solitons and Fractals. The article, headed “Self-publishing editor set to retire,” noted that he published many of his own papers and questioned whether they had been peer reviewed to the expected standard.
He sued the Nature Publishing Group, publisher of the journal, and the reporter, Quirin Schiermeier, in a case that Andrew Caldecott QC, Nature’s counsel, has described as “a fundamental issue of freedom of scientific expression.” The case is the latest in a series of libel actions over scientific issues that the Libel Reform Campaign argues are stifling free debate.
Nature, which has spent two years and hundreds of hours of staff time in preparing the case, is claiming the defences of justification, honest opinion, and responsible reporting on a matter of public interest. Mr Caldecott told the judge, Mrs Justice Sharp, that the scientists contacted by Nature were giving their honest opinion when they said that Professor El Naschie’s papers were of “low quality” and that it was obvious that there had been “very poor peer review” of his own papers.
Professor El Naschie, who is representing himself, was absent for the opening of the trial but is due to outline his case during the week beginning 14 November.
In a judgment last June after a preliminary hearing in May to try to narrow the issues, Mr Justice Eady said that Professor El Naschie was originally represented by solicitors under a “no win, no fee” deal, but they stopped acting for him, saying that “they had not had sufficient instructions to be able to progress the matter.”
The professor had written to the court to say that he was without funds and living in England “only sporadically,” the judge said. The publishers “might be thought therefore to find themselves in a rather unenviable position, in that even if they succeed, there is little prospect of recovering costs.”
The Nature Publishing Group told Mr Justice Eady that it seemed that Professor El Naschie had “bases in Egypt, the United States, Germany, Switzerland, and England” and had “attempted to run the journal, from time to time, from each of those locations.” The publisher alleged that he had “mishandled disclosure of documents” and “sought to introduce time consuming issues which have no relevance to the dispute.”
The UK government has published a draft bill to reform the law on defamation. But the committee of both houses of parliament that was set up to scrutinise the bill before legislation has called for more radical changes to confront the high costs and uncertainty about outcomes which are said to be the key factors chilling free speech (BMJ 2011;343:d6856, doi:10.1136/bmj.d6856).