Saturday, February 09, 2013

Can't Live with Them and Can't Live with Them

There's an old saying around these parts: can't live with 'em and can't shoot 'em. It is, of course, the hyperbolic version of "can't live with them and can't live without them". Everybody knows the feeling, and it's exactly the phrase that captures the feeling of most university faculty and librarians for academic publishers. Edwin Mellen Press is, for some unfathomable reason, apparently bent on making clear exactly why:

In September 2010, Dale Askey, now a librarian at McMaster University, in Ontario, published a blog post titled “The Curious Case of Edwin Mellen Press,” in which he called the Edwin Mellen Press “a dubious publisher.” For a few months afterward, several people chimed in in the blog’s comments section, some agreeing with Mr. Askey, some arguing in support of the American publisher.

In June 2012, Edwin Mellen Press’s founder, Herbert Richardson, issued a notice of action to Mr. Askey, suing him for more than $1-million. That same day, the press issued a similar notice of action to Mr. Askey and McMaster University, telling them that they were being sued for libel and seeking damages of $3-million.

The lawsuit, filed in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, came to light this week when Leslie Green, a philosophy-of-law professor at the University of Oxford, mentioned the case when responding to a blog post about a list that gave Edwin Mellen Press a low ranking among philosophy publishers....

In a copy of the press’s notice of action obtained by The Chronicle, the publisher alleges that Mr. Askey accused the press of “accepting second-class authors” and urged “university libraries not to buy the Press’s titles because they are of poor quality and poor scholarship.”

Edwin Mellen Press also charges that because McMaster University employs Mr. Askey and did not require him to remove the blog post or the comments, then the university “adopted the defamatory statements as their own.”

...The press also asserts that the defendants are liable for statements made by others in the comments section of the blog post, including one scholar’s claim that Edwin Mellen officials “practically enslave their authors to a contract that NO ONE should ever sign.”

Some obvious points right off the top:

(1) It does not speak well for the professionalism of Edwin Mellen Press that it responds this way to a single bad review.

(2) What does the Press think it is doing? Academic librarians are the lifeblood of the academic publishing industry. The whole industry is structured precisely in order to market and sell to college libraries, its primary customers. How can they possibly think that suing dissatisfied librarians will improve their position with their primary market?

Academics -- and this includes academic librarians -- judge presses not only on the quality of their catalog but also on their treatment of academics -- and, again, this includes academic librarians. They tolerate a lot because there is a never-ending need, but that does not mean they are willing to tolerate just anything.

And now webpages talking about this controversy will come up every single time someone searches for the Press's catalogue online.

(3) Dale Askey wasn't saying anything that isn't already widely thought. The Press has its defenders -- and it is, I actually think, a decent press for more unusual works that are a bit out of the mainstream, if you have the money to spend -- but it's not regarded as creme-de-la-creme among professionals. Here, for instance, is a survey of publishers in philosophy in which Mellen places last. The poll tells us nothing surprising; Oxford and Cambridge are certainly going to be on top, and which one is the very top will likely just depend on the precise make-up of the people taking the survey (although with some advantage to Oxford, because a wider variety of philosophers are likely to be find its very large catalogue useful), I'm a little surprised Routledge doesn't beat out Harvard, I would have expected Broadview to do somewhat better than it does, &c., but there are no major surprises on the list. People's views of academic publishers will be colored by what they've found useful, but these things are pretty stable across the profession. That Mellen is on the list at all is not a small thing, it should be said, but it doesn't have any obvious advantages in terms of the importance of the works it publishes, the material quality of the books it makes, or the price for what you get. It is clearly outmatched on at least one of these by most academic publishers, in fact.

(4) The attempt to suggest that McMaster "adopted the defamatory statements as their own" is the height of stupidity; universities do not and cannot monitor all communications of their employees. What is more, academic librarians are hired professionals, and the University has no right to interfere with its librarians (or faculty) airing their professional opinion in public (certainly not where this does not severely hamper the ability of the university to fulfill its mission). This is precisely what Askey was doing, however; academic librarians are too often the forgotten professionals in the business, but professionals they certainly are, and Askey was obviously speaking on a matter within his own field.

(The professional character of much university employment is something that is often not understood by outsiders. For things like faculty or library positions, universities hire people as professionals, expected to do what they deem fit in their own professional judgment as long as it fits with the required tasks. As I said, it is often forgotten that this includes librarians, not just professors, but professionals are hired precisely so that they will make their own assessments and provide their own best judgment.)

Ironically it turns out that Askey wasn't even an employee of McMaster when he wrote the post; McMaster is literally being sued for not forcing him to repudiate something he wrote before they hired him.

1 comment:

  1. Martha4:48 PM

    Please consider signing a petition asking Edwin Mellen to drop its lawsuit. As of this writing, the petition has over 1000 signatures from professors and academic librarians along with many thoughtful comments posted by the signers:


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