On February 1 of this year, philosopher Brian Leiter announced a poll to determine the “best book publishers in philosophy in English.” On February 5, after receiving over 500 votes, Leiter posted the results. I don’t think anyone was surprised to see Oxford as the Condorcet winner by a landslide, followed by the usual cast of characters: Cambridge, Harvard, Routledge, and so on. Almost as an afterthought, Leiter added that “at the very bottom of the list of 34 were Peter Lang…and then Edwin Mellen Press, which lost to Oxford 407-1, and to Peter Lang by 73-39. I don’t know much about either, but both do publish a significant number of philosophy titles.”
I would imagine that Professor Leiter now knows more than he ever cared to know about Edwin Mellen Press given the chain of events that followed. I won’t offer a full summary here, but let’s just say that the strange case of Edwin Mellen Press begins* in 2010 with a librarian who had the temerity to assert his professional opinion that EMP is a “junk publisher” specializing in “second-class scholarship” at “egregiously high prices”. And from there, we get a tawdry tale of alleged libel, lawsuits, petitions, partial retractions, spurious domain names, deranged legal threats, and oh so much more. Check out Colleen Flaherty’s “Price of a Bad Review” at Inside Higher Ed for a good review of the beginnings of the EMP drama and check out “Edwin Mellen Press Demonstrates How Not To Respond To Criticism” at Techdirt for a good overview of more
batshit insane recent developments. Anyway, throughout this unfolding drama there have been quite a few mentions of a boycott [here, here, all over the Chronicle forums, etc.]. And that’s the bit I want to address…
On March 29, in a now removed (but easily found) post, Wayne Bivens-Tatum announced that the ACRL Philosophy, Religion, & Theology Discussion Group would meet at ALA Annual in Chicago to discuss a provocative question: “Should we buy philosophy and religion materials from publishers who sue libraries and librarians?” Strangely, ACRL requested that the topic be changed and Bivens-Tatum acquiesced, replacing the initial question with a more abstract (hence, less provocative) question: “are publishers suing or threatening to sue libraries or librarians threats to academic freedom for librarians?” This is still an important and interesting question, but I want to go back to the first question. Should we as purchasing agents boycott litigious publishers?**
Should we buy philosophy and religion materials from publishers who sue libraries and librarians?
Well, the first thing to do is to clarify what sort of litigation we’re concerned with: not all law suits are created equal. Currently, the salient instances of library litigation are (1) the EMP shenanigans and (2) the civil action brought by Oxford, Cambridge, and SAGE against Georgia State over e-reserve policies. Calls to boycott the publishers in the Georgia State case have been floating around for a while, but I think Kevin Smith is absolutely correct in pointing out that this sort of boycott cannot be unilateral; it requires consultation with the teachers, students, and other researchers that make up the campus community because “this deplorable lawsuit is not a “library problem,” it is an academic problem; an issue that needs to be addressed by the higher education community.” As librarians, it’s not our call to make and we should not boycott Oxford, Cambridge, or SAGE without having a (very important) discussion with the campus community. Can the same reasoning be applied to the EMP situation or similar cases? I think not…for a few different reasons.
First, the issues at the heart of the Georgia State case are, as Smith argued, indicative of wider problems in academe and librarians are not the only stakeholders in the matter. Hell, we’re not even the primary stakeholders (that would be the students, teachers, and researchers). A unilateral boycott against Oxford and Cambridge, on the grounds that they have an adversarial interpretation of copyright law, is indefensible without the approval of at least the primary stakeholders (i.e., the teachers, students, and researchers who are most affected by access to e-reserves). On the other hand, librarians are by definition the primary stakeholders on issues relating to academic freedom for librarians. If a publisher is acting in a manner that directly challenges or threatens librarians’s professional expertise, then I think it is fairly easy to make the argument that librarians should have the freedom to initiate a boycott.
Second, though the Georgia State suit is problematic in a number of ways, it is ultimately an issue of intellectual property law (fair use and copyright infringement) and thus it is a different beast from situations like the EMP litigation which constitute issues of intellectual freedom (defamation vs. critical professional opinion). Intellectual freedom is clearly a moral concern, given that it is predicated on fundamental rights of self expression, and it is this moral dimension that suggests a boycott may be appropriate. This is not to say that IP issues are unimportant, just that they are primarily practical concerns rather than explicitly moral concerns (though there are frequently secondary moral considerations), and it should be the moral dimension that drives the boycott. Keep in mind that boycotts are essentially punitive measures and that punishment in general can only be sanctioned on moral grounds.
Finally, even though I think that boycotts are appropriate if (1) librarians are the primary stakeholders and (2) the boycott is raised on moral grounds, I think the potential harm to our communities is worth considering. That is, even if librarians are completely justified in boycotting a publisher on moral grounds, it may be wrong to boycott if it would place an undue burden on our community. This is one reason that boycotting Oxford and Cambridge would be so difficult, even if librarians were otherwise justified in boycotting. After all, as Leiter’s poll suggests, Oxford and Cambridge are the top two most respected scholarly publishers in philosophy (SAGE doesn’t publish monographs in philosophy). It’s not that they are so important that they can’t be boycotted, just that moral decision making is a balancing act and the potential negative impact of boycotting Oxford and Cambridge is far more severe than the potential impact of boycotting a much smaller press.
So, in answer to the question of whether to purchase books from publishers who sue librarians (or libraries), I say we are unilaterally justified in boycotting these publishers when (1) librarians are the primary stakeholders, (2) the boycott is primarily raised on moral grounds, and (3) the potential harm caused by the boycott is outweighed by the potential good. If a boycott fails to meet any of these three conditions, then it should not be a unilateral decision by the library. If the stakes aren’t moral, if we aren’t the primary stakeholders, or if the harm creates an undue burden on our community, then we should hold back on boycotting.
Now, the sensitive questions. First, are librarians the primary stakeholders in the Edwin Mellen situation? Second, would a boycott of Edwin Mellen be raised primarily on moral grounds? Finally, are the potential harms caused by a boycott of Edwin Mellen justifiable on balance? If the answer to all three questions is “yes”, then go ahead and get to boycotting. Otherwise, do not make a unilateral decision to boycott without securing either the assent of the primary stakeholders, solid moral reasoning, or a means of reducing potential harm.
Personally, however, the issue of boycotting Edwin Mellen isn’t an issue for me at all because I’m not really in a position to boycott a scholarly press from which I would not willingly purchase books in the first place. It’s sort of the same way I don’t eat at Olive Garden, not because I’m boycotting them, but because I don’t like their food. Similarly, I don’t buy from Edwin Mellen, not because I’m boycotting, but because independent from the quality of their books they don’t publish titles that fit my criteria for collection development. To date, I have not received any faculty requests for books published by Edwin Mellen and neither have any UTC faculty have published with Edwin Mellen. I could go to the EMP website, but they only list reasons to publish with EMP, not reasons to purchase from them. And as for holdings at other libraries, sure, places like Harvard might have over 4,000 titles by Edwin Mellen. But, Harvard also has over 1,000 titles from actual vanity publisher Vantage Press, so the mere fact that Harvard owns something is in no way a mark of quality and in no way relevant to my purchasing decisions.
So, that leaves me with book reviews. Thankfully, Brian Leiter also has a poll covering the most influential book reviewers. Within the top five sources for book reviews in philosophy only two Edwin Mellen books have been reviewed, both by Notre Dame Philosophy Reviews (the most influential reviews according to Leiter’s poll) and both reviews specifically mention bad editing (“It is not a well-edited book” and “this is a provocative book that deserved better editing.” There have been no recent reviews that I can find in Philosophical Review, Mind, Philosophy & Phenomenological Research, or Ethics (just a couple of mentions under ‘Books Received’). Even if we look at the least influential reviews, Choice hasn’t reviewed EMP since 2005 and Library Journal hasn’t in even longer. Of course, a lack of reviews in top journals does not imply that Edwin Mellen publishes inferior books; all I’m pointing out is that I really have no reliable means for assessing their quality and relevance to my collection. Given my limited funds, it would be irresponsible of me to spend money blindly.***
In a nutshell, the reason I have no intention of boycotting the Edwin Mellen Press goes back to the event that started this whole farrago. Put simply, I won’t buy from the Edwin Mellen Press not because of the lawsuit but because they are the lowest ranked publisher in philosophy according to Brian Leiter’s survey and I can find no reliable means (faculty requests, book reviews, etc.) to determine otherwise. Truth be told, I was only vaguely familiar with Edwin Mellen before the case against Askey materialized. Now that the press has willingly subjected itself to intense scrutiny, I can’t help but think that, boycott or no boycott, the damage has already been done.
* Actually, EMP has a rather interesting history prior to 2010, but prior events aren’t germane to the current round of legal maneuvering.
** I’m going to use ‘boycott’ in what I presume is the everyday (i.e., Wikipedia) sense: “an act of voluntarily abstaining from using, buying, or dealing with a person, organization, or country as an expression of protest, usually for social or political reasons.” And I’m going to discuss it strictly in terms of purchasing. There is a wholly distinct issue of whether potential authors should refrain from publishing through Edwin Mellen. This latter boycott is far less problematic and I see no prima facie reason to object to it, so I’m not going to talk about it.
*** For the record, the library at UTC currently holds 132 titles from the Edwin Mellen Press. Of the 23 titles received since 2008, 19 were on the approval plan. Since 2001, only one Edwin Mellen title has entered the philosophy and religion collection…also an approval title. In light of recent events, the approval plan has been modified.