Vanity, Thy Name Is Lawsuit

Edwin Mellen Press

As you may have heard, the Edwin Mellen Press is suing librarian Dale Askey and his employer, McMaster University, for damages in excess of $4 million.

Why?  The suit alleges that Askey is guilty of libel for calling Edwin Mellen Press “a vanity press” and suggesting that it lacks “academic credibility.”  There are several problems with this claim.

  1. In the blog post in question (since removed, but still available via Archive.org), Askey does not call Edwin Mellen Press “a vanity press.”  He acknowledges that “they are not technically a vanity publisher” because they don’t require authors to underwrite the cost of their books.
  2. A serious academic press values academic freedom. It does not (for example) try to silence its critics with a multi-million dollar lawsuit.  A serious academic press builds its reputation on reputable titles.  If Edwin Mellen Press seeks to earn the title of “litigious bully,” filing this lawsuit will aid its cause.  However, if it seeks to improve its reputation, such legal action seems unlikely to further its aims.  As Inside Higher Ed and Academic Librarian have both reported, this is not the first time it has filed a lawsuit to defend its reputation.  The press’s last such lawsuit failed.  (A 1993 article in Lingua Franca called Edwin Mellen “a quasi-vanity press cunningly disguised as an academic publishing house.”)
  3. Making judgments about the quality of scholarship is a professional librarian’s job.  As Leslie Green notes, Askey in a 2010 blog post said “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.’”
  4. Academics do not take threats to academic freedom lightly.  Librarians, Professors, and other academic professionals can advise their libraries not to buy books published by Edwin Mellen Press.  One way to do this would be to ask that, if a library’s vendor has Edwin Mellen Press on a list of books to be purchased automatically, then it should ask that the books of Edwin Mellen Press be removed from this “automatically purchase” arrangement. What it might do instead is, should a faculty member (or, to set the threshold a little higher, several faculty members) recommend a particular book, then the library will purchase it.  But the library will only purchase specific volumes recommended by faculty members — or by a particular number of faculty members. That way, should Edwin Mellen Press publish reputable scholarship (which it does do, on occasion), a library could purchase it.  Edwin Mellen can't spellBut Edwin Mellen could no longer rely upon automatic purchases from libraries.
  5. The Streisand effect.  As in the case of Barbra Streisand’s attempt to remove a photograph of her house from the web, the Edwin Mellen Press’s attempts to silence Dale Askey’s criticism has simply given more publicity to that criticism.  In sum, the more we blog about this and the more it gets report, the more that people will learn about the critique and the behavior of Edwin Mellen Press.  John Dupuis’s post “Publisher hits new low” has collected all of these links, and is adding new ones as Mr. Dupuis becomes aware of them.  UpdateThis point added on 11 Feb. 2013.
  6. I can think of no evidence to contradict Askey’s claim that while “they occasionally publish a worthy title,… so much of what they publish is simply second-class scholarship (and that is being kind in some cases).”  To judge from the comments I’ve seen elsewhere as well as from informal conversations with peers, this view of Edwin Mellen Press is widely held.  As William Pannapacker tweeted in response to the lawsuit against Askey and McMaster,

Heck, the website is so poorly edited that it misspells the institutional affiliation of a professor who endorses it (see image above right).  The word is Massachusetts, not Massachusettes.

What We Can Do to Help

So, for those of us who value academic freedom and feel comfortable speaking up, there are several steps we might take:

  • There is a petition asking Edwin Mellen to drop the lawsuit.  Sign it.
  • Who is paying for Dale Askey’s legal costs?  McMaster has just published a statement affirming their commitment to academic freedom, but Inside Higher Ed notes that Askey is paying for his own legal fees.  Full disclosure: I’ve met Dale Askey before and am a friend of his wife’s. (They both used to work at Kansas State.)  Earlier today, she indicated on my Facebook wall that they were indeed paying for their own legal fees.  Should that still be the case, could someone with knowledge of how these things work please set up a site where we might contribute to cover his legal fees?  Call it the “Dale Askey Legal Defense Fund,” perhaps.  And when you do this, please let me know so that I can add a link, here.  Thank you.
  • Let other concerned people know about it.  Use Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and so on.  I’ve been using the #FreeDaleAskey hashtag each time I tweet about it.  Perhaps we might adopt that?  Would be great to see this trending on Twitter.
  • Speaking of legal fees, I wonder if this is the sort of case which someone like Lawrence Lessig might take on?  I realize that Professor Lessig is a busy man, and I have never met him myself.  So, I don’t mean to suggest that he’s obligated to add to what is already a considerable workload, but perhaps he — or someone like him — might take an interest in the case?
  • Contact your professional organization and ask that they address it.  So far, there have been statements from the Canadian Library Association, the Progressive Librarians Guild, McMaster University, the York University Faculty Association, and other faculty associations. UpdateThis point added on 11 Feb. 2013.
  • Other ideas?  Please share them in the comments section.  Thank you.

Update, 11 Feb. 2013: Added point no. 5 and the “Contact your professional organization” point (above).

7 Comments »

  1. Bart Beaty Said,

    February 11, 2013 @ 3:52 pm

    Thanks for bringing more attention to this, Phil. It’s a ridiculous situation. A fascinating (if overlong) read on EMP is offered at the CHE discussion fora here:
    http://chronicle.com/forums/index.php/topic,122855.0.html
    The poster posting as SecretaryX claims to be an employee of EMP and does such a horrible job of defending the press that one almost has to assume it’s a sock puppet used to humiliate them.

  2. L Powell Said,

    February 11, 2013 @ 7:32 pm

    I think we need to go further and write to academic librarians around the country and ask them to boycott Edwin Mellen. No more purchases of their books; bankrupt them. Can this be set in motion? This corrupt organization needs to be shut down once and for all.

  3. Sophia Kanaouti Said,

    February 12, 2013 @ 1:05 am

    I think I agree with what L Powell says, to the point of finding it absolutely necessary.

  4. Jessamyn West Said,

    February 12, 2013 @ 2:33 pm

    What do you think is a good way to put some pressure on KState to come out with some sort of statement of support here? I’m all in favor of writing a letter or otherwise getting some support going. I think the more Mellen is shown to be a bully and a coward here, the more Dale’s case is likely to turn into more of a non-problem.

  5. Philip Nel Said,

    February 12, 2013 @ 4:24 pm

    Thanks, everyone, for your comments.

    I’ve already checked with KSU’s library. It does not have Edwin Mellen Press on any “automatically purchase” agreement. I’ve informally heard from other people (at other universities) who have also spoken with their libraries, advising similar action.

    I need to contact MLA. I’ve yet to see a statement from them, and it would seem appropriate that MLA weigh in on this. Also, Edwin Mellen has had a booth at MLA in the past. If Edwin Mellen tries to suppress academic inquiry, should it continue to have a booth at MLA?

    Finally, with respect to K-State: I agree that a statement from the university would be both welcome and appropriate. Since Dale Askey’s comment appeared on a private blog and since he is no longer employed by the university, I rather doubt that K-State will weigh in on this. I would, however, be glad to be proven wrong.

  6. Lia Said,

    February 14, 2013 @ 3:52 pm

    Phil, et al– here’s a story from Library Journal that goes into more details about Askey’s queries of K-State, legal fees, etc.

    http://lj.libraryjournal.com/2013/02/litigation/press-sues-librarian-over-negative-evaluation/

  7. Information Literacy and Edwin Mellen Press | Jersey Left Said,

    February 16, 2013 @ 5:24 pm

    [...] Nel’s post “Vanity, Thy Name Is Lawsuit” on his blog Nine Kinds of Pie includes a list that demonstrates how the lawsuit confirms [...]

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