Edwin Mellen Press Suing a Librarian?

[Update from Leiter: a statement from McMaster and a petition for Mellen to drop the lawsuit.]

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:

OFFENDED VANITY
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.”
There is a book about the case. I haven’t looked at the book, but was actually impressed by the publisher: Reid, Paul H., Jr. 2006. The Edwin Mellen Press Versus Lingua Franca: A Case Study in the Law of Libel. Queenston, Ontario: Edwin Mellen Press. [Update: I skimmed through the book, which is by the lawyer who tried and lost the case in a United States court. Near the end, the author acknowledges that American libel laws are very stringent, and that if they had this to do over again, they would have sued Lingua Franca in British court, as British libel laws are much looser than American. I don’t know whether Canadian laws are closer to British or American models.]
More lawsuits might be on the way. This is from a discussion forum at the Chronicle of Higher Education:
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.
If these reports are true, the Mellen Press is suing a librarian for claiming the press has a “weak list of low quality books” and trying to sue (presumably) a professor for opining that Mellen books wouldn’t count towards tenure. But are they true? I don’t know what to say. If the reports are true, it does seem that there’s a lawsuit designed to repress the academic freedom of a librarian expressing a professional opinion. And if so, it’s one of the rare cases that illustrate why even academic librarians need their academic freedom protected. If anyone can give more details one way or the other, please do so in the comments.
*The “offshore adjunct, Mellen University” apparently used to exist. Here’s about all I could find online about it. It’s worth a read.

47 thoughts on “Edwin Mellen Press Suing a Librarian?

  1. The lawsuit is just as you report: Edwin Mellen Press Ltd v Dale Askey and McMaster University (Ontario Superior Court of Justice, Court File CV-12-4555575 / 7 June 2012). The matter is pending.

  2. Mellen seems haphazard, I must say. I had issues with it (unaware of its history) and a book is out but I would prefer to have the copyright back and try my luck elsewhere. Won’t go into anything because I’ll apparently get sued, but whatever, I’ve never bothered to look for a job anyway and the book has been cited favorably on occasion or has been held up to honest critique, so I shouldn’t complain but sometimes still do.

  3. I’m not sure a boycott would be necessary, or even legal. The most effective retort would probably be to remove Mellen from the list of publishers on approval plans and purchasing their books only on firm order. There would be no boycott involved, but I suspect the number of books purchased would decrease significantly if they were purchase by firm order only. Not that I would ever recommend such a response from libraries!

    [Update: I was wrong in this assumption. I’ve been informed that Mellen books aren’t sold on approval at present. I don’t know if they were in the past.]

    For the nonlibrarians who are reading but might be unfamiliar with the jargon, approval plans are profiles most academic libraries set up with book vendors to make sure certain categories of books are automatically sent to the library as soon as they are published. The profile will list things like type of publisher, level of audience, subject, language, etc. For example, at my library we want all scholarly press books on philosophy published in the US and UK sent automatically because we have a robust philosophy program. We also want all books from Oxford University Press, except the ones aimed at a juvenile audience. The profile is created with the curriculum and research interests of the campus in mind.

    Firm orders, by contrast, are those books that librarians order deliberately and often individually, often based on a recommendation or a review or by choosing among records sent from the book vendor of books that were published but fell outside of the profile. Thus, librarians need a reason to purchase the book rather than relying on books to come automatically.

    Generally, large research libraries rely on numerous approval plans covering most of the world, and they want the ephemeral as well as the significant books because they want collectively to record the complete scholarly record, which is why so many libraries include small presses or marginal presses in their profiles regardless of the quality of any individual items.

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  5. Dorothea, I wouldn’t recommend a boycott of any kind, not out of any regard for the Mellen Press, but I don’t think they’re effective. The authors or potential authors for a press like Mellen are very diverse and most likely unorganizable.

  6. That wasn’t quite my question. :) Above you suggested that a library purchase boycott over this lawsuit is problematic, and I agree with you. An author boycott, however, does not present the same issues, to my mind.

    Of course it would be hard to organize; ask anybody who’s worked on The Cost of Knowledge. But there’s nothing intrinsically unethical or legally problematic about it, as best I can tell. Do you agree?

  7. The authors for a press like Mellen must be… well… check this out, from their web site:

    Ironic heading:
    “Selectivity in Book Publishing
    The Policy of The Edwin Mellen Press”

    And then we learn the dimensions on which their “selectivity” operates:

    “The best way for publishers to communicate what kinds of proposals they are seeking is by constantly producing and selling their books with the same format and pricing. This is why The Edwin Mellen Press always produces its books with the same page formatting, the same type of title, and the same kind type of cover. Mellen publishes expensive scholarly books with hand-sewn library bindings. We do this because we are seeking authors who write books of this type.”

    http://mellenpress.com/newsteps.cfm

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  9. “Near the end, the author acknowledges that American libel laws are very stringent, and that if they had this to do over again, they would have sued Lingua Franca in British court, as British libel laws are much looser than American.” The idea of any lawyer taking on a libel case and NOT knowing that strikes me as absurd. I’m a corporate lawyer, have never had anything to do with a libel case, and I am well aware of that because I learned about it in law school. It’s also regularly covered in the news, which I would have imagined anyone actually practicing in that field would keep up with. For example:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/10/business/media/britain-to-seek-curbs-to-libel-tourism.html

    Anyhow, this seems to me like a very poor choice on the part of Mellen Press. From what I’ve read, the librarian’s opinions about them are precisely that: opinions. To say that a publisher is of “poor” quality or publishes “weak” books are statements of opinion. We are all free to have opinions and to state them publicly.

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  12. This is an absolutely egregious a front to free speech of any kind first and for most, but most definitely too professional and academic free speech. In fact the filing of this lawsuit is a white collar higher education style of Mafioso intimidation on professional integrity! If this lawsuit existed in another field such as the technological, or financial there wouldn’t even be a lawsuit! It’s like saying a professional designer cannot write a professional opinion on adobe products, or a mechanic couldn’t write an article about the quality of tools produced by Craftsman. The biggest problem in general is that the public at large (or in this instance, even the publishing house) don’t seem to have a clear understanding of what a librarian’s job constitutes! The more involved in the field I become the more I realize how undervalued the education, training, and skills of librarians truly are. The vast majority of people outside the field REALLY do think librarians just fill shelves and organize books. However, you would be hard pressed to find a person who thinks that the library itself is not an absolutely wonderful and enriching place to its community (academic or otherwise). How do they think it got that way? The choice of books, computer programs, enrichment classes, and community events offered just appear? Do they think there is some mandated list put out in some magical atmosphere that appears and the lady behind the desk just follows the list for what to buy and stick on the shelf? Does the federal government have a committee stashed away in Washington that sits around reading all the books of the world adding them to this secret list? The library is an indispensable asset to its community because librarians are an indispensable asset to their communities! It is the community of librarians that build the collections that always seem to contain just the right book containing just the right information, presented in just the right way, to fill our needs at just the right time. THE MAGICAL SECRET OF LIBRARIES IS LIBRARIANS! We can, must, AND DO rely on the training, and education of PROFESSIONAL librarians. To try and keep professional librarians from doing their job ( which from the 30,000 ft. aerial perspective or grand scheme of things, is to help educate their community) by using the law in perverted lawsuits of a quasi-Mafioso style is an in justice to all. More specifically in this case it is an injustice to the education system and its most reputable resource — the academic library! We still live in capitalistic global economy! If your receiving bad customer reviews than perhaps you should be the one to form a secret committee to decide how you can provide a better product! You should not be allowed to sue someone because you don’t like their opinion that they published! Wal-mart would never be allowed to sue a customer that wrote a bad review of their products that might have led to other customer’s independent decision whether or not to purchase that product! The fact of the matter is that this librarian published nothing more than his professional opinion about the reputation of a company based on his own professional relationship with them. The decisions of others as to whether or not his opinions had any validity and whether or not that perceived validity should or should not be a part of their INDEPENDENT decision is not grounds for a lawsuit from the a fore mentioned company! In fact the lawsuit would only bear credence if what the librarian said about the company relying on “the libraries dirty little secret” (see the court documents for the full disclosure) in order to make money is true. That being said you still can’t sue someone for making true statements about you (no matter how bad that truth is).
    The second part of this injustice and travesty of the situation is the silence on behalf of the librarian! Where is his employer’s official statement of defense? If his librarian skills, education, and PROFESSIONAL JUDGEMENTS were qualified enough to rely on as resource for all of your professors, Ph.D.’s and academic collection building librarian staff (it takes a team) were sufficient enough to be under your employment, then why would you stand silent at his defense? In defending his professional judgments the University is ultimately defending its own professional judgments! If you cannot or will not defend your own professional judgments as a staple in academic society, than what good is the piece of paper written by your institution to its students. How can you say that your students are qualified recipients of their degrees if you can’t stand up and defend the professional judgments of your staff?
    Personally, I think that this librarian should be receiving a VERY public outpouring of support from the library community at large for his right to publish his professional opinions (whether you personally agree with them or not). This situation demands it! Any other response will only cow tow the public image of the nerdy librarian who works silently for the benefit of others sorting books on shelves without thanks or respect. There needs to be a response that demands the respect for the librarian profession, the level of education it takes to be one, and the work that constitutes the job!

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    • Thanks for the FYI! The fact that they are supporting him in face of the fact that the posts were made before he was even employed by them is icing on the cake!

    • I see there is also a whole book on the scandal that I can read. Bet you can guess the publisher??

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  22. I am a former employee of McMaster who worked in the purchasing department supporting research needs. I can tell you this is a well run research intensive university. I was suprised that the President of McMaster’s list of the seven ‘McMaster Principles’ omits mention of academic freedom. The place is an idea factory and the academics and staff are excellent. There are four libraries on campus that are well run. I am now a library technician student in Western Canada. I have no doubt the university would view this lawsuit as frivolous and the university community would stand behind Mr. Askey’s professional opinion.

  23. One question for the lawyers posting: What is Canadian Law like in rewarding costs of defence against what the court deems to be frivolous law suits? And what do the courts generally do if a defendant, once cleared, countersues because of the “trials” (excuse the pun) that the complainant caused the defendant by bringing forward what the court deems to be a frivolous law suit? I would love to know if this is a way of preventing future action.

  24. I was threatened with a lawsuit for a review I once wrote and the journal forced me to settle. My review was officially retracted. I was also forced to sign a confidentiality agreement and so cannot identify myself or the journal.

    • PS Neither my university nor my union would support me since writing reviews was not part of my ‘job description’.

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