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Call in the Lawyers

April 1, 2013

Edwin Mellen Press is continuing to threaten its online critics. 

A second librarian is facing legal threats from Mellen, a scholarly publishing house in Lewiston, N.Y. Mellen is threatening legal action against Rick Anderson, the interim library dean at the University of Utah, after Anderson criticized Mellen, in part for legal action the press has already taken against another librarian. 

Strong reaction late last week by academic librarians suggests Mellen could face a backlash among the academics who make up the target audience for the books Mellen sells.

In the first case, Mellen recently sued Dale Askey, associate librarian at McMaster University in Ontario, over a blog post he wrote in August 2010 that was highly critical of Mellen. The company dropped that suit, but another in which Mellen's founder is the plaintiff in a libel action against Askey remains.

Now, Mellen is threatening Anderson for two blog posts he wrote about the Askey case that were also critical of Mellen. The publisher is also threatening a freelance copyeditor who left a comment on one of Anderson’s posts.

In the short term, Mellen’s threats prompted the Society for Scholarly Publishing’s to remove Anderson’s posts and the comment critical of Mellen from the society’s blog, The Scholarly Kitchen. 

Mellen’s attorney, Amanda R. Amendola, said in a letter to The Scholarly Kitchen that Anderson had "written disparaging comments about our publishing program, the quality of our books and has attacked the character of our editor, Professor Herbert Richardson." She said the intent of her letter was to put the blog “on notice” about Anderson’s writing.

In a February 11 post, which remains online at a site that regularly archives large swaths of the Internet, Anderson called Mellen’s books “generally overpriced and of poor quality” and gave his account of a conversation with Richardson, which he called the “strangest phone conversation I’ve ever had with a publisher.”

In a March 5 post, which also remains archived online, Anderson continued to question some of the company’s dealings.

Faced with legal action, Anderson said Friday he thinks Mellen’s behavior now speaks for itself.

“It’s an important part of a professional librarian’s work to evaluate the offerings of publishers and I think the letter from Edwin Mellen Press’s attorney speaks eloquently for itself,” Anderson said.

In a second letter to The Scholarly Kitchen, Amendola threatens specific legal action against a freelance copy editor, Kristine Hunt. In a comment left on one of Anderson's posts, Hunt said Mellen offered its authors “no copy-editing, proofreading or layout services." Amendola said Hunt’s claim was “simply untrue.”

Hunt declined Friday to comment on Mellen’s letter.

In the face of the letters from Mellen, The Scholarly Kitchen decided to remove the posts. The blog’s editor in chief, Kent Anderson, said he made the decision on the advice of legal counsel.

“We have had the posts up, the information wasn’t necessarily that novel and we felt that the trade off between taking them down and posting the letters was fair,” Anderson, who is not related to Rick Anderson, said.

The British Columbia Library Association also reported what it called “possibly bizarre” activity. According to website domain name registration records, someone claiming to use a Mellen email address registered at least two Dale Askey-related domain names, daleaskey.com and daleaskey.net. This activity was discovered by Dave Pattern, a library systems manager who highlighted the registration records on Twitter. (This paragraph has been updated.)

Mellen did not return a call seeking comment.

Askey said he did not register the domains himself and would be troubled if Mellen is, in fact, swooping up domains with his name.

“If there is any truth to those allegations, I would be very disturbed,” Askey said. “I think registering someone’s name as a domain is a very creepy thing to do. You can’t mean well by it. There’s no good intent to it.”

Mellen is no stranger to criticism or litigating its critics. The company sued the now-defunct Lingua Franca over a 1993 article that called Mellen a “quasi-vanity press cunningly disguised as an academic publishing house.” 

The article said Mellen had capitalized on a pre-approval system universities use to automatically buy some publishers’ books. Mellen lost the suit.

Now, librarians are suggesting Mellen’s legal maneuvers may hurt the company because university librarians will be on the lookout for Mellen books and give them closer scrutiny. 

Askey said he is in disbelief over Mellen’s latest action.

“When you’re not really making friends in the business, why you would want to dig a deeper hole escapes me,” he said. 

Kent Anderson said it didn’t make sense to him for any company to argue with its customers.

“I think every customer of anything, if you didn’t like it and you told somebody and you get sued for saying that – that’s a bad thing in general,” he said.

John Dupuis, an acting associate university librarian at York University who has closely followed the Askey case, said Mellen should have ignored its critics.

"They seem hell-bent on torturing their reputation with people who've got to be 99 percent of the people who are buying their books," he said.

 

 

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