A few months ago, a voicemail message was left on my office phone. It was from Dr. Herbert Richardson, owner of Edwin Mellen Press (EMP). He said that whereas our library had purchased a significant number of books from his press in the past, we had bought only a handful in recent years, and he wanted to know why. He also mentioned that he would be willing to donate $50,000 worth of EMP titles to our library, and asked me to call him back.

When I did, Dr. Richardson asked why we had stopped buying his press’ books. I explained that it was because we felt his books were generally overpriced and of poor quality, and I told him that we would not be interested in receiving a large gift of EMP titles.

He then asked whether I knew Dale Askey, a librarian who had once worked at the University of Utah. He mentioned that Askey had written a highly negative blog posting about EMP in 2010 (the posting has been removed from his blog but retrieved by EduHacker and posted here). As I recall, Dr. Richardson characterized the posting as “scurrilous.” I told him I had never met Askey; he had left the U of U before I was hired in 2007. I got the impression that Dr. Richardson believed it was Askey’s fault our library had stopped buying EMP titles, but I explained that I had worked as an academic bookseller and an acquisitions librarian for 20 years and had formed my own opinion of EMP a long time ago, and that it was my own familiarity with EMP that had led us to stop buying the press’ books.

Dr. Richardson then launched into a long defense of the quality and uniqueness of his list. I finally had to cut him off so I could go to a meeting. It was easily the strangest phone conversation I’ve ever had with a publisher.

Late last week, a news report drew the academic world’s attention to the fact that Dr. Richardson has filed two lawsuits for libel, one naming Askey as a defendant and another against Askey and his current employer, McMaster University. (This, despite the fact that, at the time he wrote his critical blog posting, Askey was working for the library at Kansas State University.)

McMaster University has released a statement on the matter, emphasizing that it:

. . . strongly supports the exercise of free speech as a critical social good. For this reason, McMaster University has for more than eighteen months rejected all demands and considerable pressure from the Edwin Mellen Press to repudiate the professional opinions of university librarian Dale Askey, notwithstanding the fact that those opinions were published on his personal blog several months before he joined McMaster.

The university’s statement ends by saying that it intends to “rigorously defend its commitment to academic freedom and freedom of speech as the case proceeds before the courts.”

In 1993, Dr. Richardson brought a similar suit against Lingua Franca magazine in response to an article (not available online) by Warren St. John, titled “Vanity’s Fare: How One Tiny Press Made $2.5 Million Selling Opuscules to Your University Library.” Dr. Richardson lost that suit. In 1994, he was found guilty of gross misconduct by an academic tribunal and fired from his tenured position at the University of Toronto; his press subsequently published a book about the affair titled Envy of Excellence: Administrative Mobbing of High-Achieving Professors.

The Change.org website has posted a public petition calling on EMP to withdraw its lawsuit.

This is an interesting case that bears watching. Askey is quoted in Inside HigherEd as saying:

. . . the integrity of true academic freedom is only as strong as the will and resources to defend it.

(Note: On February 14, 2013, the ARL and CARL released a joint statement in support of Askey and McMaster University.)

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Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson is Associate Dean for Collections and Scholarly Communication in the J. Willard Marriott Library at the University of Utah. He speaks and writes regularly on issues related to libraries, scholarly communication, and higher education, and has served as president of NASIG and of the Society for Scholarly Publishing.

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