Publisher hits new low: Suing librarian for criticizing their books

So here's the rather strange story.

Way back in 2010, librarian Dale Askey, then of Kansas State University, wrote a blog post critical of the humanities monograph publisher Edwin Mellen. Basically, he stated that the publishers' low quality did not justify their high prices. No big deal, really, librarians have lots of opinions about publishers and share them all the time around the water cooler, at conferences and online. But perhaps foreshadowing what was coming, Askey remarked in his post: "Given how closely Mellen guards its reputation against all critics, perhaps I should just put on my flameproof suit now."

Fast forward to 2012, with Askey now Associate University Librarian at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario:

Edwin Mellen Press, an academic publisher with offices in upstate New York and Britain, filed two lawsuits in June in Ontario’s Superior Court. The first implicates Askey and McMaster, his current employer and employer for some of the time the blog post was live, as "vicariously liable" for his statements, and claims libel and exemplary damages in the amount of $3.5 million. A second suit, filed against Askey alone, claims more than $1 million in similar damages (the individual suit names Herbert Richardson, press founder, as plaintiff and alleges additional, defamatory remarks directed against him personally on the blog).

Whoa.

Suing a librarian for being critical about your products is clearly a massive overreaction. There are better ways to respond, surely.

But here we are. Academic librarians have academic freedom in their positions to protect us from just this sort of undue influence on the exercise of our judgement while doing our jobs. This intimidation is unacceptable.

So what are next steps? First of all, we should all keep up the pressure on blogs and twitter and other places online. It would be great to see more faculty blogging and tweeting about this, and faculty all across the disciplinary map too. Librarians work for the interests of their entire campus constituency and I'd hate to think this could set any sort of precedent.

Sign the petition, if you're so inclined. I have. And most of all, we should continue to air our honest opinions about publishers and their products, both in person and online.

As is my occasionally obsessive practive, I've gathered the various commentaries I've seen around the web below.

General:

 
 

The story chronologically:

If I've made any errors in the above list or missed any other relevant items, please let me know in the comments or at jdupuis at yorku dot ca.

(Academic librarianship is a small world. I've met Dale Askey once or twice at conferences.)

Update 2013.02.10. Added a bunch I missed.
Update 2013.02.11. Added another bunch, some new and some I missed.
Update 2013.02.13. More added, mostly new with a few stragglers.
Update 2013.02.13. Added MUALA statement.
Update 2013.02.13. Added OCULA statement.
Update 2013.02.14. More added, mostly new and a few older ones.
Update 2013.02.15. More added.
Update 2013.02.20. Fairly sizable update, including a couple of more historical background items at the end of the General section.
Update 2013.02.27. More added, all from February 19th on.
Update 2013.03.17. Big update with 60ish items added.
Update 2013.03.30. Update mostly about threatening letter to The Scholarly Kitchen. The withdrawn posts are here and here
Update 2014.02.24. Big update, long delayed. Prompted by Dale Askey being awarded the 2014 Award for the Advancement of Intellectual Freedom in Canada and the Progressive Librarians Guild Toronto Area Chapter being awarded the Les Fowlie Intellectual Freedom Award. Both are richly deserved. Since it's been so long since I've updated, there's probably a greater than average chance I've missed stuff. Please let me know in the comments or at jdupuis at yorku dot ca.

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I know of a similar case from the 1990s. A publishing company called Gordon and Breach sued over a study demonstrating that their physics journals were disproportionately expensive. The story was covered in the pages of Physics Today. Ultimately the suit was dismissed.

If Askey were still in the US this suit would not stand a chance, but I understand that Canada is much more plaintiff-friendly when it comes to libel suits. Even so, I suspect (as does Appleby, linked above) that Mellen are shooting themselves in the foot here. When you sell a niche product, you have to be much more careful to avoid alienating your potential customer base than somebody in the mass market business.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 11 Feb 2013 #permalink

I cannot believe what I am reading: that a publishing house is suing a librarian for expressing an opinion ? As an independent scholar and a retired librarian I am incredulous that a certain press has such an inflated opinion of its place in the scheme of things. NO ONE (not even God!!) is above criticism. Let us hope the judge before whom this case comes, throws it out with the contemptuous laughter it deserves. While a certain press does the scholarly world a valuable service, some of their publications are disappointing and I personally doubt that they are every scholar's first choice as a publisher, if only because of the amount of work the author is expected to do which in other cases may well be done for them by the publishing house.

By Brenda M Cook (not verified) on 19 Apr 2013 #permalink

Keep up the superb work, I research couple of posts on this internet site and I think that your web weblog is extremely interesting and has lots of fantastic info.

By web hosting (not verified) on 22 May 2013 #permalink

What I do not understand if this company is lawsuit crazy as this posting indicates why are they still in business? Why do schools keep buying their books? If schools would simply refuse to conduct business with this publisher, they would have a long and painful death. Send that message and these type of lawsuits will disappear. Librarians not only have a right to criticize and complement publishers, they have a duty to do so.

By Jeffrey D Fitzgerald (not verified) on 05 Dec 2013 #permalink