Edwin Mellen Press is suing Dale Askey–a McMaster University librarian–and McMaster University for “$3.0 million dollars as damages for defamation arising from continuous publication on the World Wide web by the defendant Askey.” The alleged defamation occurred in a 2010 blog post Askey–an American citizen–wrote when he was a librarian at Kansas State University. The contents of the action (including the original blog post) are available here. Regardless of the outcome of the case, academic librarians should consider the implications of this lawsuit and its potential attack on academic freedom and the public expression of professional opinions on relevant subjects. Information about previous and potential Mellen lawsuits are below.
[Note: the above is the latest update. Normally I don’t revise posts, but as I want to publicize this case and this is the post getting the traffic, I wanted to be clearer and put to rest the questions I had when writing the original post below. The questions were answered very quickly.
[Update, more coverage from Inside Higher Education. The notice of action is dated June 7, 2012. After 8 months of silence, it's good this is finally being publicized. And a discussion of the IHE article on Gawker. And from the Chronicle of Higher Education. And from Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing.]
[Update: the lawsuit seems to be real. Here is the notice of action by Mellen Press against Askey and McMaster, sent to me by Les Green of Oxford U.]
I put the title in question marks because I have no details of any such lawsuit, but allegedly Mellen Press is suing an academic librarian at McMaster University for giving a low professional opinion of Mellen’s offerings. The claim came in comment on this Leiter Reports post reporting on a survey of philosophers about the best philosophy publishers (where, incidentally, Mellen finished 34th out of 34). Leiter brought the comment up to the top in this post: Shocking attack on academic freedom at McMaster by Edwin Mellen Press? (Note the question mark.) Here’s the comment in full, from a philosopher at Oxford:
The Edwin Mellen Press may well, as this survey suggests, have the worst quality philosophy list but it tops the league in disgraceful conduct in defense of its dismal reputation.
A professional librarian at McMaster University’s library complained, in a 2010 blog-post, that Mellen was a poor publisher with a weak list of low-quality books, scarcely edited, cheaply produced, but at exorbitant prices. Librarians are expert at making such judgments; that’s what universities pay them to do. And the post made a key point about the public interest: ‘in a time when libraries cannot purchase so much of the first-class scholarship, there is simply no reason to support such ventures.’
No one likes bad reviews; but Mellen’s approach is not to disprove the assessment, pledge to improve its quality, or reconsider its business-model. It is to slam McMaster University and its librarian with a three million dollar lawsuit in the Ontario Superior Court, alleging libel and claiming massive aggravated and exemplary damages. The matter is pending.
The lawsuit is threadbare. With respect to the parts of Mellen’s list with which I am familiar, the librarian’s statements noted above are all true and the quality judgments are correct. (And this survey suggests that would be a common assessment.) Moreover, on the facts in this situation, it is obviously fair comment, and public policy considerations strongly suggest that university librarians enjoy a qualified privilege with respect to their assessments of the quality of the books they consider buying for their universities. It would be a disaster for universities, students, researchers and the taxpayer if aggrieved publishers were permitted to silence discussions of the quality of their publications by threats of lawsuit.
McMaster University’s response to this appalling tactic has been surprising. Public silence. No one at McMaster has spoken in defense of the librarian or the University; no University administrator has pushed back against the crude threat to academic freedom that this represents. (But then the President of McMaster’s list of the seven ‘McMaster Principles’ omits mention of academic freedom.) Are the McMaster faculty, administration, and faculty associations already so cowed by libel-chill that they are afraid to speak up? Or are they unaware of Mellen’s attack? Or—and this is just as worrying—is it that McMaster values its professional librarians so little that it is willing to let them bear the brunt of such harassment, so long as the University itself can avoid vicarious liability?
Let’s hope someone at McMaster forcefully says ‘enough’ to this sort of bullying. Universities have a negative duty not to abridge the academic freedom of their members; they also have a positive duty to see to it that others do not do it either.
I vaguely remember reading a blog post like that and thinking it uncontroversial, if perhaps a bit sweeping. Librarians have opinions about various presses based on long exposure to their publications. Most academic collection development librarians have opinions on way or the other about numerous publishers, and if pressed they could probably present evidence to support those opinions, because professional opinions don’t form in a vacuum. Regardless, suing a librarian for expressing such a professional opinion seems like an unusual tactic for a scholarly publisher, and the kind of thing that librarians, who probably buy the most Mellen Press books, probably won’t like.
There is a history of this kind of thing. In 1993 Mellen Press sued the greatest magazine of academic intellectual life that ever existed, Lingua Franca, over an article that “referred to the Edwin Mellen Press as “a quasi-vanity press cunningly disguised as an academic publishing house.” (St. John, Warren. 1993. “Vanity’s Fare: How One Tiny Press Made $2.5 Million Selling Opuscules to Your University Library.” Lingua Franca, September/October, p. 1ff. See note 8 here.) They lost. As a mirror site for some old LF content states:
Warren St. John deems Edwin Mellen Press a vanity publisher capitalizing on the desperation of credential-hungry academics. St. John also finds that the Press’s offshore adjunct, Mellen University,* is little more than a diploma mill. After the exposé, Mellen chief Herbert Richardson, a former University of Toronto religion professor, accuses LF of libel and sues for $15 million. He loses. In September 1994, St. Michael’s College, where Richardson holds tenure, dismisses him for “gross misconduct.”
Re: Edward [sic] Mellen Press–Any insights?
« Reply #16 on: January 21, 2011, 02:04:48 PM »
I wasn’t sure which of the Mellen threads to use for this post, but this seemed like a decent option. I just received a letter from Edwin Mellen in relation to a conference I attended several years ago. Apparently, there was a session on academic publishing at this conference, and one of the panelists (according to this letter) discussed publishers, mentioning Mellen as one publisher to avoid because their books won’t count towards tenure. (Note that I didn’t actually attend this session or appear on the panel.) This letter is asking for “memories” of what this individual said on this panel about Mellen so that they can “seek adjudication” – I’m assuming that means legal action? I’m rather horrified by this.