Publisher launches $3,000,000 suit against academic librarian who criticized its books

An academic librarian at McMaster University wrote that "The Edwin Mellen Press was a poor publisher with a weak list of low-quality books, scarcely edited, cheaply produced, but at exorbitant prices," a point of view supported by survey data. The Edwin Mellen Press responded with a libel suit, naming both McMaster and the librarian, and seeking $3,000,000 in damages. McMaster has been publicly silent on the matter, but it deserves wider attention.

I've had my share of negative reviews, including some that I thought were materially unfair. Though I earn my living as a writer and a publisher, I can't imagine using the law to silence my critics. But Mellen has a history of suing and threatening people who criticize its products.

No one likes bad reviews; but Mellen’s approach is not to disprove the assessment, pledge to improve its quality, or reconsider its business-model. It is to slam McMaster University and its librarian with a three million dollar lawsuit in the Ontario Superior Court, alleging libel and claiming massive aggravated and exemplary damages. The matter is pending.

The lawsuit is threadbare. With respect to the parts of Mellen’s list with which I am familiar, the librarian’s statements noted above are all true and the quality judgments are correct. (And this survey suggests that would be a common assessment.) Moreover, on the facts in this situation, it is obviously fair comment, and public policy considerations strongly suggest that university librarians enjoy a qualified privilege with respect to their assessments of the quality of the books they consider buying for their universities. It would be a disaster for universities, students, researchers and the taxpayer if aggrieved publishers were permitted to silence discussions of the quality of their publications by threats of lawsuit.

Shocking attack on academic freedom at McMaster by Edwin Mellen Press? (Thanks, Jill!)


  1. Guess I’m putting a copy of this article up on the faculty bulletin board. You know, just to help Mellen discover the joy of the Streisand Effect.

  2. Is it time for a reasoned national debate on lawyer registration and limits to the b*llsh*t capacity of lawsuits yet?

    1. It bears repeating that bullshit lawsuits spawn from the brains of clients, not lawyers.  It’s a cliche to say that “everyone deserves their day in court”, but it’s a cliche that is to a great extent still respected by the legal profession. Lawyers are the gateway through which most people will get their day in court. Thus, ethics and professional responsibility manuals for lawyers often suggest that is improper for a lawyer to refuse to represent a client simply because they think the client has a weak case. Obviously there are exceptions to this, such as where the lawsuit is so baseless as to represent an abuse of the legal system. But that’s a very high bar to reach. 

      A good lawyer will inform a client “your case is bullsh*t and you are going to waste a lot of time and money, and you are going to lose”. However, some clients will hear this and insist on pursuing a lawsuit anyway. As long as the case has SOME merit, many lawyers feel that they have a duty to assist their client in having their day in court, even if they believe their client will lose. 

      Rather than placing limits on who can file a lawsuit in the first place, a defendant who feels the case against them is totally baseless can file for “summary judgment” and ask the court to throw the case out. Again, it’s a high bar before the court will do this. Judges generally feel that they shouldn’t be making decisions until both sides have had a chance to present their evidence.

      I’m not saying this particular case isn’t baseless. I’m just trying to suggest that it’s not always the lawyer’s fault, and that placing limits on what lawsuits can be filed has it’s own problems. 

      1. To add on to Matt L. In Canada we also have costs awards built into our system to discourage frivolous lawsuits. The default is if you lose you pay between 30-50% of the other side’s legal fees. Bad behaviour can get that increased to 90%.

        Also, our tort awards are much much lower than the US. The three million dollar figure here is laughable.

        Don’t know how serious the lawsuit is. The lawyer who filed the notice of claim is a well known insurance defence lawyer at BLG, not a libel guy.

    1. I want to reply to this, but first let me give some interest-of-fairness information. My partner has a book published with Peter Lang. I think it’s pretty good, and it’s published in the thesis series, so it’s demonstrably marked as the work of a beginner. Another person in my circle, whom I loathe, detest, and would probably secretly undermine if I were one atom more nasty than I actually am, has a book published with Ashgate. So, I guess my bias balances out when I say this: a lot of the onus that academics and university librarians place on for-profit academic presses like Ashgate, Peter Lang, and even Eddie Melon is unfair.

      The main criticisms are that those publishers actively solicit work from young scholars. I know I’ve had a Mellen rep come on to me like a streetwalker needing the next fix. But, really, is that so much worse than the university presses that pretty much require you to be close buddies with a few of the contributing editors, or at least be an advisee of one? The next moderately serious criticism is that these books are promoted and blurbed by friends of the books’ authors. Well, yeah. I could pull any book of my shelf from a university press and point out the same thing. Why? Because you’re friends of, or at least cordial enemies with, the people in your field.

      The final and really only valid criticism is that the books are sometimes shoddily edited, or that the presses offload too much editorial work on to the books’ authors. Well, yep, that’s true. HOWEVER, those presses don’t have the (all-too-often exploitive) revenue streams of university presses. They don’t have grad students working for crumbs; they don’t have money coming in from university budgets; they don’t have faculty working on release-pay. They have to make a buck only on their products, so they cut and cut and cut those margins, and they charge out the nose for the books. I’ve been in the Peter Lang Verlang office that serves a whole, well-developed, highly-educated European nation. It was as shabby and undermanned as the fifth-tier university journal I worked at when getting my MFA. And that particular office turns out excellent monographs, particularly on avant-garde movements of the late 20th century. And they do it on a shoestring.

      All said and done though, I intend to shop my work out to Wesleyan, Iowa, and other presses before I go to Peter Lang, Mellen, or some similar for-profit. Mostly because of connections I have or want to cultivate.

      1.  Thanks for that. I think, though, that it’s not really germane. Whether or not the criticisms of Mellen are unfair, suing your critics is totally unacceptable. The answer to bad speech is more speech.

        1. Oh, agreed. I was responding to the criticisms offered in the article linked in my parent, not to the original posting. I can understand Mellen’s punitive attempt to silence critics, but I don’t think it’s right nor that it will do anything but further tarnish that press’s reputation.

      1. You can get the gist of the article from the three points I attack in my diatribe just above. The linked article proposes that university presses combining with university libraries and offering books for free is one solution to the primary problem the article’s author identifies, which is high costs to libraries.

        I suspect the author IS right. However, as a librarian, s/he glosses over some of the problems. One is that a lot of this “free research” movement is being strong-armed out of graduating students. Many students are required to grant their university’s library (and soon its press) publication rights to their dissertations. Required in order to graduate. This publication then makes it much harder to publish the manuscript, even if heavily revised, to a press for publication. And that is often the first publication for a student, the one that will get them tenure. 

        Given that teaching loads are increasing and the research demand is not decreasing, this trend makes it more difficult for new profs to get tenure. And the alternative to getting tenure is “buh-bye”–back on the job market. So there are significant problems.

        And I say all this as a proponent of free exchange of information. Unfortunately the system is set up to reward scarcity rather than generosity, and when there’s a system-wide paradigm-shift, it’s the weakest members who will suffer, not the libraries, the presses, or the established faculty, but the graduate students who are already exploited to hell and gone for cheap teaching.

  3. Back when I was doing work with the victims of serially abusive groups (known to the tabloid press as “cults”) we made an interesting observations w.r.t. Mellen Press.  If you divided “academic” books on the subject into piles of “There ain’t no such things as cults–there ain’t no such things as cults”, “Satanic cults will steal your baby tomorrow!” and a third “Everything in between” pile the first, dismissive pile was composed entirely of Mellen Press books.

  4. I feel sorry for some other academics I know who’ve published unwittingly with this press. None have repeated their mistake but the past still haunts them. You see it in the frowns when someone spots that press name on a CV. . . .

    I hope that McMaster steps up to the plate on this one as well KSU – it’s an important case about academic freedom and standing up to bullying tactics.

    1. I think they have to defend this, at least as far as getting some solid affirmative defences and grounds for dismissal in place. That will cost considerably less than $3M, and probably less than settling too.

      Meanwhile, bring on the Streisand Effect in full force. This is going to cost Edwin Mellen Press *far* more than they could possibly hope to gain in a settlement if every single university library reacts rationally to this threat, which is arguably an attack on all of them.

  5. I think that this is emblematic of a much broader problem within the textbook publishing industry. This industry has been proved time and time again to be fleecing the public through unnecessary editions and higher than necessary prices (though I’m sure that there are perfectly honorable press houses out there).

    That said, I read this article to mean that Mellon is among the very worst–and wish a pox upon their house.

    1. The two economies could not be more different. The readership for scholarly titles like those published by Mellen is vanishingly small, while the readership for textbooks is quite large, though not as large as for the latest best-seller, nor maybe even for your average mass-market genre title. That’s one reason prices are so high for such books. Even reputable for-profit scholarly presses like Palgrave will jack you up at the cash register. They pretty much have to to balance the budget, much less to make a profit. Of course, with all the mergers we’re not seeing the old practice of running literary and scholarly imprints as prestige/courtesy/charity branches of the publisher.

      1. I don’t begrudge any business from making a fair, legitimate profit. It’s the unfair, illegitimate profits that chap my behind. Issuing new editions of classic economics or Elizabethan literature seems unnecessary.

        1. I can’t begin to come up with a rationale to call any part of the academic publishing industry fair. Ideally, we could just publish online for free, maybe with vetting and editing, and that would be supported by our salaries and accepted for promotion. And graduate students wouldn’t be strong-armed into signing away their rights.

          Maybe that day is coming, but I don’t think it will be soon. And I don’t think that merger after merger is a good sign. That ends up with things being all about the stockholder and the profits and not about the pride, tradition, prestige, generosity, or whatever positive, non-profit-driven things you want to associate with getting the job done.

    2. Here’s a free report from a good source:

      That’s be better than what I can offer, because I’m so close to this issue that I can only address Mellen’s egregious behavior as a symptom of a larger problem. Better to read the AAUP report, which will explain the problems/potentials in these market developments.

      Anyway, I need to shut up and stop procrastinating on my writing.

  6. Are these guys planning to never sell to a university library again? From the one’s I know, librarians tend to keep up with what is going on in the field, know each other, and so forth. This seems like one of those ‘suing your customers is a bad strategy’ things…

  7. Saltine,

    Regarding your section on grad students being required to “publish” their thesis with their institution and thereby reducing their chances at publishing it outside their institution, that is just patently false.

    There are several references out there as far back as 2001*  through to 2011** and others in between where it clearly shows that “publication” as a thesis as required by a university has little or no impact on the item getting  published in article or book form.

    Unsubstantiated statements such as yours keep that myth alive amongst grad students and their supervisors. Ironically it tends to limit the wider distribution of their scholarly output because they are afraid to make their thesis available via an institutional repository.

    *McMillian, Gail. “Do ETDs deter publishers?” College & Research Libraries News 62 no6 Je 2001: 620-621. **McMillian, Gail et al., “An investigation of ETDs as prior publications: Findings from the 2011 NDLTD Publishers’ Survey”. Proceedings of the 14th International Symposium on Electronic Theses and Dissertations, Cape Town, South Africa, September 13-17, 2011.

  8. The main issue with the Mellen press, as discussed at great length in the forums at the Chronicle of Higher Ed, is not the profit/not profit aspect, but rather the reviewing structure.  The process by which they vet books bears little resemblance to the peer review process used by academic presses.  This means that books a professor publishes with EMP can’t (or shouldn’t) be included in decisions such as promotion and tenure.

    There is an odd thread over at the Chronicle in which the EMP robotically defends their process with a sequence of endorsements from, among others, holocaust deniers:,122855.0.html

  9. I’m surprised Mellon is suing in an Ontario court. One feature of Canadian civil trials is that the judge can order the loser to pay all court costs including the opposing legal fees. This could well have a happy ending.

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