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The article reports that Edwin Mellen Press has withdrawn the suit against McMaster University and Dale Askey, BUT Edwin Mellen Press is still suing Dale Askey.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 Pleasures of Displacement

planeI don’t enjoy flying, but I do like traveling. There is pleasure in being somewhere else, in experiencing a different city or country. All that is taken for granted in daily life cannot be taken for granted — and this is especially true when in another country, when the food, language, and culture differs in varying degrees from one’s own. Prior to dinner, the Swiss have apero, a kind of extended meal of hors d’ouvres. In a Japanese restaurant, shoes get left at near the doorway, and hands adjust to eating with chopsticks instead of a knife and fork.  But even in one’s own country, cities are not identical. Normal, Illinois (where I am flying from, as I write this) has three independent record stores on the same block, and a superlative used bookstore — with lots of children’s books — on the same block. And I ran along a trail I’ve never run along before.

When traveling, daily work does not vanish. The draft of the panel proposal must be edited and rewritten, via a series of email exchanges with a colleague at another university. The invited talk itself must be timed, polished, cut, honed, rehearsed.  Emails from students, colleagues, editors, and others require answers.

But all of this work happens out of context, in a different space — on a plane, in an airport, at the hotel lobby, in the back of the taxi, in the hotel room. Because it is happening in different locations, it acquires a slightly different flavor, even a greater sense of clarity.  This sharpness of perception may derive from the simple fact of being somewhere else: because they are unfamiliar, surroundings demand more attention, perhaps heightening attentiveness more generally. It may also derive from urgency: being a conference attendee or invited speaker creates a daily schedule that reorganizes time in ways that cannot always be anticipated.

I like that, though. And, since I’m almost always traveling for business, I enjoy the interchange of ideas — in the Q+A session of the talk, or the conversations over dinner, after the panel session, and so on.  During the past few days, talking with Jan Susina, his wife Jodie Slothower, their son Jacob, my former graduate student Elizabeth Williams (and other University of Illinois grad students, faculty, and families), I’ve learned about lots of books and articles I need to read: Theories of affect, collections of comics, young adult novels. Beyond that, there are ideas that lodge in my subconscious, emerging later, sometimes long after I’ve forgotten the source.  At some point, I’ll ask Jan to elaborate on the connections he sees between Paul Klee and Crockett Johnson.

Though academics work long hours (as I’ve documented elsewhere) for less compensation than we’d like, I feel privileged to have a job in which I get to learn, share what I’ve learned with other people, and learn from other people.

Combining these intellectual exchanges with the displacement of travel brings the experience of learning into focus, sustains a degree of clarity absent from my workaday life, prods me to keep moving forward into new areas.

And it’s especially nice when someone else picks up the cost! (I pay for most conference travel myself, but I’m coming back now from two invited talks, both of which were covered by the host institution.)  So, thanks to the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of English (especially Marah Gubar), and to Illinois State’s Department of English (especially Jan Susina and Roberta Trites), and to everyone who hosted, chatted, came to the talks or otherwise participated.  It’s been a great few days!  Until next time!

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Brisbane: City of Free, Public Art

Coming from a U.S. state whose governor is working tirelessly to defund the arts, I’ve been delighted to see so much art in Brisbane, Australia — most of it at no cost to the visitor.  GoMA’s Surrealism exhibit requires a ticket, but the rest of the museum has no admission fee.  Back in the States, MoMA has a $20.00 admission fee.

But, in Brisbane, you can…

Brisbane sculpture: guitar pick grande

… carry a giant guitar pick on your back

Brisbane sculpture: great big ball

… kick a giant silver ball

Brisbane sculpture: spaceship in at city botanic gardens

… play peek-a-boo with a spaceship from the future

Brisbane sculpture: giant angular alien, from near art museum

… or dance with giant angular metal.

All at no cost to you!

And I failed to get a picture of the disemboweled mechanical kangaroos, but those are nifty, too.

Brisbane sculpture: kangaroo (photo by David Jackmanson)

Above photo by David Jackmason, webmaster of BrisbaneIsHome.com.

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Wintertime for the Arts?

Yuko Takao, A Winter ConcertAs we celebrate the birthdays of Mozart (255th) and Lewis Carroll (179th) amidst threatened cuts to arts funding, we might re-read Yuko Takao’s A Winter Concert (1995; English translation, 1997).  Rendered in thin dark lines on a white background, mice walk to a concert.  As the pianist begins to play, colored pointillist shapes rise from the piano: a small red circle, a smaller orange triangle, a purple square.  Displaying the piece’s musical development, the shapes, sizes and colors grow in frequency and variation: a crescent moon of yellow, orange, and red; a globe of many colors.  Soon, a full spectrum of sound washes over the auditorium.  When the audience departs, each member brings along some of that color on the journey home.

Yuko Takao, from A Winter Concert

Music adds color to our lives.  It brightens cold winter days.  It allows us to experience beauty.

Despite what the Governor of Kansas may think, the arts deserve our support.  And I, for one, am glad to pay more taxes, if that’s what it takes. As the protagonist of Leo Lionni’s Frederick (1967) knows, art can sustain us when times are hard.  And, despite news of economic recovery, times remain hard.

There’s a proverb (which may be Persian, I’m not sure) that goes something like this:

In order to live, a person needs two pennies: one for a loaf of bread, and the other for a lily.

If you just have the first penny, you’re merely surviving.  The second penny — the one for beauty — is what allows you to do more than merely survive.  The second one allows you to live.

Support the arts.  If you need a second penny, take mine.

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Humanities Majors Learn More

Academically AdriftReports about Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses are burying the lead or omitting it all together.  At a time when the humanities are under attack, this book reveals that humanities majors are learning more than all other majors.  You read that correctly.  The students who are acquiring the most knowledge from their college educations are those who major in English, Philosophy, Music, Fine Arts, Religion, History, Theatre, and Modern Languages:

Students majoring in liberal arts fields see “significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills over time than students in other fields of study.” Students majoring in business, education, social work and communications showed the smallest gains. (The authors note that this could be more a reflection of more-demanding reading and writing assignments, on average, in the liberal arts courses than of the substance of the material.)

That’s from Scott Jaschik’s piece in Inside Higher Ed, one of the only articles to even mention this important victory for the humanities.  True, it’s not the lead, and the parenthetical diminishes the importance of the subject.  (That final sentence makes the absurd claim that the humanities have both “more-demanding reading and writing assignments” and somehow less “substance.”  What?)  Their apparent anti-humanities bias aside, Arum and Roska’s study brings good news for those of us who value the humanities.

Why, then, do the Chronicle of Higher Education, the New York Times, and others fail to mention the fact that humanities majors are learning more than their colleagues in other fields?  Why are the headlines “University students learn next to nothing” (Macleans) or “New Study Confirms the Obvious: First Two Years of College Spent Sleeping and Partying” (Vanity Fair)?

There are many reasons, all of which have been stated elsewhere with greater eloquence.  (For those who wish to skip a summary of the obvious, jump past this list to the next paragraph.)  Some reasons include:

  1. Americans’ anti-intellectualism.  Most Americans distrust the well-educated, and consider knowledge with suspicion.  To point to but one recent example: For the past decade, The Today Show has featured the winners of the Caldecott and Newbery Awards.  This year, on the first show after the awards were announced, Today‘s featured guest was Snooki.  The winners have yet to appear on the program.
  2. The widely held notion (by many state legislatures, at any rate) that college is a waste of the public’s money.
  3. And, of course, cultural prejudice against the humanities.  English majors: how often do your relatives ask you what you’re going to do with that degree? How many of your classmates ask why you need a B.A. in English to ask “Do you want fries with that?” How many Engineering majors get asked the same questions?

All of the above are either false or based on false premises.  If you’re able to think critically about the world, you’re less likely to be misled (by, say, politicians who claim that we “can’t afford” to fund public education adequately).  If you gain a college degree, you’ll have a better chance at finding gainful employment.  And, as for the notion that humanities majors enter the job force ill-equipped, that’s simply nonsense.

To focus on the students I teach, English majors go on to become librarians, screenwriters, teachers, technical writers, lawyers, journalists.  They work in non-profits, publishing, advertising, public relations.  One former student of mine works for Hallmark.  You can do a lot with a degree in the humanities. As Geoffrey Galt Harpham writes, ”the humanities elicit and exercise ways of thinking that help us navigate the world we live in. For my money, that’s about as essential as it gets.”  To be a student of the humanities is to consider with greater nuance and deeper understanding just what it means to be human.  What could be more important than that?

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