Information Literacy and Edwin Mellen Press

On Valentine’s day, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an article about Dale Askey, now a librarian at McMaster College (Ontario), and the infamous lawsuit brought against him in June 2012 by Edwin Mellen Press, the publisher he allegedly described as “dubious” in a 2010 post on his personal Web site, Bibliobrary.

The CHE article, “Librarians Rally Behind Blogger Sued by Publisher Over Critical Comments” by Jake New, updates the story described in William Pannapacker’s Academic Librarian blog on February 6, just before McMaster published a statement in support of Askey (who was not even employed there in 2010 when he wrote the blog post). I first read about this lawsuit when I was invited to sign a petition organized by Martha Reineke on February 8 (a petition that has 2,388 signatures as of this moment) and in an Inside Higher Ed. article, “Price of a Bad Review” by Coleen Flaherty that same day (see a timeline of early reports here.). However, I’ve been aware of complaints about Mellen for some time (see for example, this interesting conversation on the CHE Forum back in 2011) and have politely refused to write introductions to dissertations Mellen proposed to publish, although I felt uncomfortable doing so in some cases, and my refusal did not stop the publication.

Philip Nel’s post “Vanity, Thy Name Is Lawsuit” on his blog Nine Kinds of Pie includes a list that demonstrates how the lawsuit confirms Askey’s alleged claim that while Mellon is not technically “a vanity press” it lacks “academic credibility.” The original blog post has been removed from Askey’s blog, although I read it when I was trying to explain my decision not to endorse a project a few years ago. Nel reports that the entry did acknowledge 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).’” And that tone squares with my memory.

The CHE article reports that “In the lawsuits, filed in a Canadian court, Mr. Richardson and the press are seeking damages for both the blog post and the comments left by the blog’s readers.”  The case raises all kinds of questions beyond simply the freedom of bloggers to write what they believe to be fair and honest posts, and our freedom not to delete comments that may go further than we do.

Are we responsible for the comments posted on our blogs?

Well, actually, I think we are. To an extent. That is, I believe we are responsible for removing offensive posts that, in my case, would violate the Human Rights Policy at my institution. I’m blogging under my name and even though my blog is not hosted by my institution, that policy should, I believe, cover what is posted here because my students may read this and treat it as an extension of the classroom conversation—especially as I am currently teaching a course on social media.  I’ve thought a lot about this over the years as more people I work with blog. I support freedom of speech, mostly, but I also think the dictum “first do no harm” should be extended to teachers and from there to blogs and other publications.

There has been much written about blogger’s responsibility (I once had a great document I can’t find now that talked about comments as well as content–if anyone can point me to that I’d be very grateful. The Electronic Frontier Foundation is also useful) and I may add to that conversation at some point, but not now. It is the case that I would delete offensive posts if I were writing under an assumed name as well, and I would probably write a blog entry about why I did so (although here’s a good argument about why one should not delete). But in any case I would not have taken down a post that accused Mellen of acting like a “vanity press,” even if that is technically inaccurate. So I, too, could be facing a $1,000,000 lawsuit.

Assuming that Mellen will lose the case against Askey as it did a similar case against the journal Lingua Franca in 1993, this will probably be an episode that ends up serving the common good (if not Askey’s comfort-level I’m sorry to say). I hope it will challenge people to think about Mellen and similar publishers, and about academic publishing in general. Mellen is far from the only publisher to go after unsuspecting graduate students as well as wise ones, and some of the others are vanity publishers. The power of blogging and the related paranoia of a publisher that has received much criticism in the past come together to make us think about larger questions of information literacy.

Should inexperienced scholars know more about publishers before submitting their work?

Yes, and it is the responsibility of their mentors to discuss that with them, in most cases this would be their graduate school faculty and dissertation committee. (Paul Kei Matsuda has a great blog post with very valuable advice for academics deciding which conferences and publishers to grace with their work.) People do need to know about Mellon and all other publishers before providing manuscripts. And as has been said elsewhere (including in the CHE Forum), some people may want to publish with them for legitimate reasons. Perhaps this is a family history they want told, or a new approach to established practice, or just the product of a lifetime interest that is not sufficiently scholarly for an academic press nor popular enough for a commercial giant. There is a case to be made for a publisher that encourages innovative books. And I am not saying that because I’m afraid I’ll be sued as well. But in general that case is harder to  make for books that the author wishes to count as part of the academic conversation and classify as “scholarly.”

So why are scholarly texts different?

Scholarly texts may challenge convention, confirm accepted belief, forward arguments with new evidence, or break new ground, but they do it within the framework of other scholars in their fields. And they do so in dialog with other research presented at academic conferences and published in academic journals (print and online) and scholarly books. Is that right? Well, when it works it seems to work well. But as the story about Napoleon Chagnon in this week’s New York Times Magazine indicates, sometimes that can be complicated.

Publish or Perish?

The larger question is what scholars want to get out of their book publications. Is this about joining an academic conversation or further evidence of the mantra of “publish or perish”? As some comments on the CHE Forum  noted, some institutions count any book as a book and are pleased to see their faculty engaging in the life of the mind. And there is nothing inherently wrong with that as long as it is evenly applied. While the sentiment that “a book published by some presses can be worse than no book at all” apparently tweeted by Pannapacker last week undoubtedly applies at many institutions, it certainly does not apply at all.  Perhaps in spite of the advice of others or because of a lack of it, some good books have been published by Mellen and as I teach my students when guiding them through the complex process of assessing information found on-line, information literacy is a complex skill. Shorthand “rules of thumb” like “if it is published on a .edu site it is reliable” are as shortsighted and misleading as claims that everything from Mellen is bad. That said, a rule of thumb is a good place to start.

But scholars trying to get that first book out may not have time to be idealistic. A publisher approaches you at an academic conference, expresses interest in your paper, and asks to read your dissertation. That feels good. A few weeks later you get a letter inviting you to publish and asking you to request that the chair of your dissertation committee write an introduction to your book and the other members sign off on it in the role of peer reviewers (because, of course, they have signed off on it once by approving the dissertation). That is how we all dream academia will work. It is so particularly seductive because it is not how academia generally does work. Book contracts are not easy to get and many authors spend as many years revising manuscripts as they did drafting them. Who has time for that with the tenure clock ticking?

On the other hand, without the depth and perspective peer review brings, and without the increased clarity a good editor can encourage, does the book merit tenure? And who is served by books brought speedily to press because of the pressure of administrative deadlines that themselves seem to militate against thoughtful and carefully developed scholarship? When quantity takes the place of quality no one is served and publishers like Mellen fill the resulting niche.

When is a book not (quite) a worthy book?

Should colleges examine the practices and reputations of publishers (book and journal) before evaluating faculty and deciding P&T cases? Of course. And we do. The department putting a candidate forward for hire, promotion, and tenure has a responsibility to do that and to publish the criteria they use to make such judgments to help prospective and junior faculty make intelligent choices. It is also the responsibility of the department or program to mentor junior faculty through the process of moving into academia, supplementing the advice that should have been given by graduate school faculty. That mentoring includes the development of a scholarly timeline and a discussion of appropriate publishers and publications in the field.

But not all institutions are the same. Many award tenure based on teaching excellence and service and while participation in the conversation of the discipline is expected, a book is not. In those institutions a book manuscript that has been reviewed by peers but denied by prospective publishers might find a home with Mellen with the blessing of a department and institution. However, if that scholar moves to a different institution the book might not count, or might not count as much. The same is true of course for edited collections, textbooks, and in some fields co-authored books. A book focusing on pedagogy may be awarded less merit than one on theory in some fields. This just seems to cry out more strongly for clear guidelines that identify and assess the merits of publishers and scholarly journals (print and online).  And perhaps more of us should look at impact reports, number of citations of specific texts, and general participation in ongoing scholarly conversation rather than just counting pages/number of publications?

Is a blog the best place for a librarian to report on the quality of publishers his or her library might include?

No. But should the blogger be sued for doing so. Of course not! End of story.

Should libraries examine the quality of publishers when deciding to purchase books?

Yes. That was Askey’s original point. Their failure to do so undermines our collaborative work to help students learn to assess the quality of on-line sources. If I urge students to question a website because the material published there did not receive sufficient peer review or cite sources, the existence of books in university libraries published by less-than-respected publishers seems to force me to re-examine those lessons. Is it enough that replies and comments on an article praise it, or should external evaluators do so? And should those evaluators be as impartial as scholars ever can be? If someone on a dissertation committee writes an introduction to that dissertation in book form, is that sufficient recommendation or might I have ulterior motives for writing that introduction? Or just be over-impressed by my own student whose dissertation I after all guided? Hey, can I list that introduction on my CV?

The Mellen case raises many questions, but perhaps the greatest of those is why a publisher would sue a librarian who tries to discuss them and threaten to sue a professor who tries to raise this issue at a conference (see the second comment here) rather than, say, engage them–and us–in debate based on the quality of the product.

A conversation I am sure will be continued . . .


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