The curious case of Edwin Mellen Press
Edwin Mellen Press has been on my radar as a dubious publisher for over a decade now, and given that libraries’ monographic budgets are ever-shrinking, I find myself amazed by the durability of Mellen.
When I worked at the University of Utah, I made a snarky comment about Mellen on a mailing list which landed in the inbox of Mellen’s publisher. We got into a testy email exchange, in the course of which he accused me of academic mobbing. Given that I came to my own conclusions about Mellen, and that one can easily look at their catalog and figure out the same conclusions, it was a curious accusation. Of course, I had publicly called them a junk publisher, so namecalling was certainly in play.
Yes, they occasionally publish a worthy title. No, they are not technically a vanity publisher, since apparently they earn enough from libraries with their egregiously high prices to avoid asking for subsidies from authors. But at the end of the day, so much of what they publish is simply second-class scholarship (and that is being kind in some cases), and in a time when libraries cannot purchase so much of the first-class scholarship, there is simply no reason to support such ventures. We in libraries are especially placed in a bind when our own faculty place books with such publishers. We buy them with gritted teeth and wish faculty would consult us on publisher choice, an area where many librarians have extensive knowledge.
On a whim, I did a quick study of my previous employers to see how many titles they purchased from Mellen from 2005-2010. The results are striking:
- 22 titles: University of Utah
- 582 titles: Yale University
- 149 titles: Kansas State University
If one takes the ballpark figure of $100 per title (yes, their prices, for a largely humanities publisher, are on the high side), these title counts represent substantial expenditures. I was pleased to see the low figure at Utah, where several of us persuaded our colleagues years ago to banish Mellen from our approval plan; apparently that tradition has been continued.
Were we living in an age of rapidly rising monographic budgets, we could stomach, perhaps, spending some of our money on marginal scholarship. But we are not living in those times, and every academic library is progressively tightening the screws on approval plans, to the point where we reject some of the output from publishers with the proper bona fides. Making wise choices about our purchases will do as much to help shape the future of scholarly communication as does all of our lobbying and advocacy, yet we often neglect the former and emphasize the latter.
Such publishers often point to their titles sitting on the shelves of major libraries, such as Yale, as evidence of their worthiness. The dirty little secret of libraries is that such purchases are rarely evidence of careful consideration, but rather a sign of how much of the work of acquisitions we outsource to vendors, who supply these books on approval. Why? Well, since those suppliers take a cut of sales, it is in their interest to sell as many high-priced volumes as possible, and in that scenario, a publisher such as Mellen is a golden goose. As libraries further reduce the number of qualified subject librarians (underway nearly everywhere, even at the elites), this trend will only get worse.
Given how closely Mellen guards its reputation against all critics, perhaps I should just put on my flameproof suit now.