Librarians Rally Behind Blogger Sued by Publisher Over Critical Comments

February 14, 2013

A university librarian who is being sued after writing a critical blog post about a scholarly publisher is finding support from professors and librarians around the world.

In 2010, Dale Askey, now a librarian at McMaster University, in Ontario, wrote a blog post about Edwin Mellen Press on his personal Web site, Bibliobrary, referring to the publisher as "dubious" and saying its books were often works of "second-class scholarship." For a few months afterward, several people chimed in in the blog's comments section, some agreeing with Mr. Askey, others arguing in support of the publisher.

In June 2012, Edwin Mellen Press's founder, Herbert Richardson, issued a notice of action to Mr. Askey, suing him for more than $1-million. That same day, the press issued a similar notice of action to Mr. Askey and McMaster University, telling them that they were being sued for $3-million. 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.

Since the case came to light last week, librarians, professors, and academic associations have rallied online, characterizing the lawsuit as an assault against academic freedom.

The library chapter of the York University Faculty Association, in Toronto, released a statement supporting Mr. Askey. The Canadian Association of University Teachers, a leading faculty union, has also taken up the librarian's cause, said its executive director, James L. Turk. And the Canadian Association of Professional Academic Librarians released a statement saying its Steering Committee was gathering information about the lawsuit.

Support for Mr. Askey isn't limited to Canada. On Twitter, academics around the world are tweeting about the case using the hashtag #FreeDaleAskey, and Martha J. Reineke, a professor of religion at the University of Northern Iowa, created an online petition seeking an end to the lawsuit. It has drawn nearly 1,900 signatures since Friday from Britain, Canada, and the United States.

"Signing is going well 24 hours a day, thanks to persons in Europe who sign while the North Americans sleep," Ms. Reineke said.

Mr. Askey said he found the response of so many librarians, professors, and organizations to be "heartening."

"Their words are far more eloquent than anything I could say, and I'm personally grateful for all of the expressions of support," Mr. Askey said in an e-mail. "I sincerely hope that the press heeds the clear message coming through these statements and works with me to find an acceptable resolution."

Edwin Mellen Press, which has offices in the United States and Britain, did not respond to several requests for comment. Mr. Richardson, who could not be reached for comment, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation this week that he had sued Mr. Askey and McMaster after numerous letters to the university were met with only "threatening letters from their lawyer."

Personal Comments?

The first lawsuit, filed by the publisher's founder rather than the press, alleges that Mr. Askey is liable not just for criticizing the publisher's output, a task Mr. Askey said is his job as a librarian, but also for making personal comments about Mr. Richardson, a task that is probably outside a librarian's job description.

In a copy of the statement of claim obtained by The Chronicle, Mr. Richardson specifically states that "the defendant" accused him of being a "fascist and evangelical Scientologist." But an archived copy of the original Web site, preserved by the Internet Archive, shows that the statement in question was actually posted in the comments section of the blog by a reader, not by Mr. Askey.

And Mr. Askey was not even a librarian at McMaster when he posted on the blog. He was still an associate professor at Kansas State University, working in Hale Library, he said. He started working at McMaster in February 2011.

Brandon Butler, director of public-policy initiatives at the Association of Research Libraries, called the publisher's lawsuit "alarming" and said he worried about the chilling effect the lawsuit could have if it succeeds.

"Librarians are generally very conscientious and careful folks," Mr. Butler said. "A legal threat can be extraordinarily powerful."

The research-library association released a joint statement with the Canadian Association of Research Libraries on Thursday, saying they disapprove of the Edwin Mellen Press's "aggressive use of the Canadian court system."

"No academic librarian, research library, or university should face a multimillion-dollar lawsuit because of a candid discussion of the publications or practices of an academic publisher," said Brent Roe, executive director of the Canadian group, in the statement. "The exaggerated action of Edwin Mellen Press could only impose a chill on academic and research librarians' expression of frank professional judgments."

'A Very Real Chilling Effect'

Steven J. Bell, president of the Association of College and Research Libraries, said that Edwin Mellen Press's response to the blog post seemed extreme. Mr. Bell described academic presses and librarians as partners, but if the press won the lawsuit, that relationship could be damaged.

"I think that would be devastating for academic and intellectual freedom," Mr. Bell said. "If Mellen was successful, it would absolutely have a very real chilling effect. It's obviously an attempt to silence us. And to threaten us and scare us."

Mr. Askey is not the only librarian to face a potential lawsuit for voicing an opinion about academic publications.

The Canadian Center of Science and Education is threatening to sue Jeffrey Beall, a librarian at the University of Colorado at Denver, after he included the center and three of its related companies on his blog's list of journals he considers to be "potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access publishers," which take advantage of academics desperate to get their work published. In separate blog posts, Mr. Beall details why he believes the companies are misleading.

The Canadian center, which is based in Toronto, is asking for the companies to be removed from the list as well as $10,000 for legal fees and damages, according to a letter from the center's lawyers obtained by The Chronicle.

If Mr. Beall does not comply, he will be "subject to a civil action," the letter stated.

As for Edwin Mellen Press, this is not the first time it has responded aggressively to criticism. The publisher once sued Lingua Franca for libel when, in a 1993 article, the now-defunct magazine criticized the publisher. Edwin Mellen did not win, but it did later publish a book about the lawsuit, which can be purchased for $119.95.

In an October 2012 newsletter, the publisher urged its authors to fight "false and malicious comments" being published on the Internet, including in a Chronicle forum thread.

"We do not know why the criticism persists," the newsletter said, "but this problem has gone on for some time and has done a great deal of damage."