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The Edwin Mellen Effect

Edwin Mellen Press

 

It’s Opposites Day at The Chronicle of Higher Education. The headline reads, “Edwin Mellen Press Drops Lawsuit Against University Librarian.”

Chronicle's Misleading Headline

The article reports that Edwin Mellen Press has withdrawn the suit against McMaster University and Dale Askey, BUT Edwin Mellen Press is still suing Dale Askey.  Beyond the fact that the Chronicle should have let its readers know it was celebrating Opposites Day, this development raises several questions about the allegedly scholarly press known as Edwin Mellen Press.

  1. The news release’s internal contradictions are remarkable.  Without any irony whatsoever, Edwin Mellen Press in its press release says that “EMP remains resolute that all have the right to free speech.”  How is suing a librarian for $1 million an affirmation of that principle?  For that matter, how did suing Lingua Franca over its characterization of Edwin Mellen Press uphold “the right to free speech”?  This doesn’t make any sense.  And when you follow that claim about “right to free speech” in the very next sentence with “all have the right to take steps, including legal action, to protect their good names and reputation,” you’re reminding your audience that Edwin Mellen Press launches lawsuits at its critics in order to shut them up.  So, not a very effective piece of rhetoric.
  2. Even before Edwin Mellen Press launched this suit, it did not have a “good reputation.”  As Timothy A. Lepcyzk pointed out at EduHacker, when Edwin Mellen Press launched this suit against Askey, punching the words “Edwin Mellen Press” into Google would elicit the following suggestions: “edwin mellen press quality,” “edwin mellen press review,” “edwin mellen press reputation,” “edwin mellen press vanity,” “edwin mellen press vanity press.”  Edwin Mellen’s news release speaks of “EMP’s good reputation” and of the right to protect that reputation.  However, it didn’t have a good reputation when it filed this suit, and its reputation has only declined since then.
  3. You can’t erase the internet.  When you punch the publisher’s name into Google now, you get these automatic suggestions:  “edwin mellen press,” “edwin mellen press reputation,” “edwin mellen press review,” and “edwin mellen press vanity.”  Below that, the first hit is the press’s website, but all other hits are other websites, each of which reference the press’s litigious behavior.  There are scores of articles on the Press, and they’re not flattering.  Did it seek to cement its reputation as a litigious bully or further delegitimize its allegation that it’s a “scholarly press” (a claim made in its latest press release)?  If so, then it has succeeded.  If it had other aims, it’s failed.Google: Edwin Mellen Press Vanity
  4. If the press cannot manage its own damage control, what does that say about its publicity department?  If dropping one suit (but not the other) was an attempt to control some of the damage that Edwin Mellen Press has inflicted on itself, it has instead inspired further speculation about its incompetence.  As Rick Anderson notes in his really nice close-reading of the Mellen news release, the publisher’s behavior “is simply bizarre.”
  5. This isn’t over yet.  Sign the petition!  There are currently over 3100 names on the petition.  Let’s keep those numbers rising.
  6. Finally, the Streisand Effect should be renamed the Edwin Mellen Effect. This PR debacle that the press has chosen to inflict upon itself will, I suspect, ultimately result in its undoing.  Its attempts to silence its critics have only amplified those critics’ voices.

More information on Edwin Mellen Press & Its Attempts to Silence Its Critics:

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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).

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The People’s Library

“Nazis destroyed books to ‘purify’ German culture. Bigots do it in the name of God, or Allah. What’s Bloomberg’s excuse? ‘Hygiene’?”

— Salman Rushdie, via his Twitter account, 16 Nov. 2011

“If corporations are people, tents are definitely speech.”

— Ben Chappell, prof. of American Studies, University of Kansas (via Eric Michael Johnson [@ericmjohnson on Twitter], who credits @rmmilner and @docfreeride as his sources), 15 Nov. 2011.

The term “fascist” is used too often and too loosely in American political discourse. Mayor Bloomberg is not a fascist. However, in ordering the destruction of a library, the mayor’s actions evoke the symbolism of fascist and other totalitarian regimes. One expects that he did not intend a metaphoric alliance with such groups. Indeed, he wisely ordered the books to be thrown in the dumpster, rather than having them set on fire.

But Salman Rushdie — who knows a thing or two about the destruction of books — is not wrong when he hears parallels between Nazis’ attempts to “purify” culture via the destruction of books that (they alleged) would pollute minds, and Bloomberg’s claim that he’s acting to promote “the health and safety of the public.”  That was his explanation for the Tuesday 1:30 am attack on Occupy Wall Street, and the destruction of its library.  And you can see the appeals of his rhetoric: who would argue against “guaranteeing public health and safety”?  Unfortunately for the mayor, evidence contradicts his rhetoric.  Though Mayor Bloomberg worked to prevent reporters from covering the raid (for their own safety, he alleged), too many people were able to capture the event on film.  Looking at those images, the chaos and violence of the assault does not resemble either “health” or “safety.”

Occupy Wall Street Library (after)

Which is precisely why Mr. Rushdie’s parallel gains symbolic force.  As the mayor’s predecessors (fascist and otherwise) have done, Mr. Bloomberg uses language to mask ideology.  In a delightfully Orwellian use of language, he claims the twin goals of “guaranteeing public health and safety, and guaranteeing the protestors’ First Amendment rights” but, since (he said) the former outweighed the latter, “inaction was not an option.”  In other words, he needed to attack peaceful protesters in the middle of the night, while they slept, because they posed a danger to the public.  This sounds a bit like George W. Bush’s doctrine of preemptive war: the protesters may pose a danger, and so Bloomberg had to attack them before they did.  It also echoes the U.S. Army Major in Vietnam who, speaking to a reporter in 1968, said, “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”

The accidentally fascist overtones of the mayor’s purposefully thuggish order may be the greatest gift he could give the Occupy Wall Street movement.  Not only is the violence of this nighttime attack likely to galvanize the Occupy Wall Streeters, but it may also persuade others to join them. When you wage war on a library, you wage war on all who read, write, and think. When you attack books, you attack democracy.  And when you do these things, people fight back.

As Ben Chappell observes, “If corporations are people, tents are definitely speech.” And libraries are both.

The Occupy Wall Street Library (before the raid)

Image sources: “Urgent: Raid of Occupy Wall Street” (Occupy Wall Street Library, 15 Nov. 2011); “Occupy Wall Street Library Removed as NYPD Evicts Protesters” (School Library Journal, 15-16 Nov. 2011).

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Senseless Violence: The NYPD Destroys Library. UPDATE #3

Occupy Wall Street Library (before) Occupy Wall Street Library (after)
Occupy Wall Street Library (before) Occupy Wall Street Library (after)

“I cannot live without books; but fewer will suffice where amusement, and not use, is the only future object.”

Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 10 June 1815

“Knowledge is power.”

Thomas Jefferson to to Joseph Cabell, 22 January 1820

“Let me conclude by thanking the NYPD, FDNY, and the Department of Sanitation for their professionalism earlier this morning. Thank you.”

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, 15 November 2011, after the NYPD and the NY Sanitation Department evicted Occupy Wall Street, destroying 5000 books.

“Apparently the NYPD have destroyed the donated library at #ows – I don’t think you need a metaphor, but crushing 5000 books might be one.”

— Simon HB (@norock on Twitter), 15 November 2011

 UPDATE as of 5:30 pm Central Time.  All of the Library has not been destroyed.  It’s being “held captive” by the City.  Here is a photo, courtesy of Mayor Bloomberg’s Twitter account (and The Observer).

Occupy Wall Street Library: "Property from #Zuccotti, incl #OWS library, safely stored @ 57th St Sanit Garage; can be picked up Weds"

UPDATE as of 11:30 pm Central Time: Occupy Wall Street Library asks, “And where is the rest of it?”: “We’re glad to see some books are OK. Now, where are the rest of the books and our shelter and our boxes? Nice try guys, but we won’t be convinced until we actually have all our undamaged property returned to us.”

UPDATE as of 12:30 pm Central Time, 16 Nov. 2011: Occupy Wall Street Library reports “that their claim that the library was ‘safely stored’ was a lie.”  About half of the books are missing; many others are damaged or destroyed.  Initial reports that books were thrown into dumpsters seem, in fact, to be accurate.  And this blog’s initial claim that the NYPD destroyed the library is also accurate.

Books from Occupy Wall Street Library.  They were damaged during the NYPD raid.

Image sources: “Michael Bloomberg Destroys a Library to Shut Down Dissent in New York City” (Irregular Times, 15 Nov. 2011); “URGENT: Raid in Progress” (Occupy Wall Street Library, 15 Nov. 2011); OWS Library Safe and Sound; Held Captive By City” (New York Observer, 15 Nov. 2011); “UPDATE: State of Seized Library” (Occupy Wall Street Library, 16 Nov. 2011).

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