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English libel reform to bring peer-review protection

Peer-reviewed publications and scientific conference reports can expect explicit protection as England revises its libel laws, newly published legislation reveals.

Libel law in the country has been a concern to scientists for some time, with a number of high profile legal actions being brought against researchers and science writers discussing their work. A number of scientific groups played a leading role in the drive for reform, which has culminated in the defamation bill announced earlier this week and introduced into Parliament yesterday. (Nature also backed the libel reform campaign.)

If it gets through Parliament, the new law will provide a specific protection to statements in scientific or academic journals. This is conditional on the statements having been independently reviewed by a journal editor and one or more experts. Protection will also be extended to those publishing a “fair and accurate” copy or extract of the original piece.

In addition, fair and accurate reports of proceedings at scientific or academic conferences will also be protected, along with “copies, extracts and summaries of matter published by such conferences”. Reports of press conferences where the matter discussed is in the public interest will also be protected. Some legal experts believe these events may have been protected under existing laws, but the changes will make this explicit.

The bill will also mean that someone wishing to sue for libel will have to show “serious harm” has been done to them.

Many these changes were recommended by a select committee looking into a draft version of the defamation bill earlier this year. The government hinted it was minded to agree in its response to the committee.

Libel reform has attracted support from across the political spectrum in the UK, making it likely the bill will be passed. This will apply to law in England and Wales, but not Scotland, which has a separate legal system and has not attracted criticism over its libel laws.

See also

English libel reform may explicitly protect scientific conference reports
Revised English law may liberate scientific discussion


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