Research intelligence: Words of warning

A Stockholm scholar visits London to decry the threat to science posed by England's libel laws. Zoë Corbyn reports

March 25, 2010

It was Francisco Lacerda's own institution - Stockholm University - that financed his trip to London earlier this month to speak about his experiences of England's libel laws.

"The university thinks it is important to have a public debate," explained the professor of phonetics, who is based at Stockholm's department of linguistics.

Professor Lacerda made the journey to deliver a simple message: that the country's tough libel laws are harming free speech in science and must be overhauled.

The academic has personal experience of the issue, which has come to a head in recent months as a result of an ongoing campaign to keep libel laws out of science.

In 2007, he co-authored a peer-reviewed paper, "Charlatanry in forensic speech science: A problem to be taken seriously", which questioned the science behind lie-detection technology based on voice analysis. The paper looked in detail at a particular commercial product through an analysis of a publicly available patent.

The reaction of the Israeli manufacturer of the device, Nemesysco, was to threaten legal action against the publisher of The International Journal of Speech Language and the Law, Equinox, prompting it to withdraw all but the abstract online.

A note posted in the article's place by the publisher says the paper made "serious allegations" about both the company and the inventor of the device.

It adds the claims of the two parties that they had been denied an opportunity to comment and that the content of the paper was "highly defamatory, containing many inaccuracies and misleading statements".

Professor Lacerda, who was also warned not to republish the article elsewhere, said English libel laws had been invoked because Equinox is based here. At the time of the withdrawal, he said he could not understand the publisher's actions, but that he had since learned more about the English law.

He said he and his co-author, Anders Eriksson, professor of phonetics at the University of Gothenburg, had "no idea" of the response their paper would provoke, adding that in retrospect they had been "pretty naive and idealistic" given the journalistic tone and provocative way in which the paper had been written.

"I thought we would have a discussion on the content of the paper," he said. "What I was expecting was debate, a productive academic fight. The company would say: 'No, you are wrong because of this.' This is the way science progresses. But that is not what we got, and that was a surprise."

Scientists, funded by the taxpayer, have a duty to put their arguments and findings into the public domain and a responsibility to discuss and raise issues, he said. However, he added, at present they are too often thwarted by the law.

"You have to address and discuss issues, not suffocate them by putting a cover on them," Professor Lacerda said.

'Business can't have it both ways'

The academic identified a "conflict of interest" between private firms and the academy as the crux of the problem.

"There are companies that tend to promote themselves by claiming that their products are based on scientific research. But at the same time, they don't want to be challenged by academics because it damages their markets," he said. "They can't have it both ways."

He added that under Swedish law, the onus in a libel case would be on the companies to prove that their products worked.

A more technical version of the article that offended Nemesysco was later published in one of Stockholm University's own peer-reviewed publications, he said.

Professor Lacerda described the effect that English libel laws are having on science internationally as "hugely chilling", particularly as scientists tend to lack the financial clout of companies.

The problem, he said, is that simply raising the spectre of libel can stifle research. "All you have to do is send a letter saying that you intend to issue a claim on defamation. Because it costs so much to defend, it is enough."

This can lead to excessive self-censorship, the professor argued, with the result that papers that should be published never see the light of day.

The solution, he suggested, was that libel claims by commercial companies against research scientists should not be allowed to proceed.

Of his visit to London, where he spoke to a group of MPs on the topic, Professor Lacerda said: "You always dream of doing something that is of importance - that is why you chose to be a scientist. But I never thought that it would be because of this."

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