April 15, 2014

What is Alleged Defamation Worth? $1 Billion, on a Librarian’s Salary

Here we go again: Another academic librarian received a letter threatening legal action concerning criticism of a publisher’s practices on a personal blog. But it’s not Edwin Mellen Press that’s the plaintiff this time; Jeffrey Beall, University of Colorado, Denver librarian and author of the Scholarly Open Access blog, received the letter from OMICS Publishing Group, an Open Access (OA) publisher based in India (with an office in Los Angeles).

The posts OMICS objected to said that OMICS has been:

  • Using the names of scientists without their permission to invite participants to meetings, giving their meetings names that are deceptively similar to other well-established meetings, and refusing to refund registration fees even if meetings are cancelled,
  • Soliciting articles, accepting them for publication, and only after a DOI is assigned, informing the author that they owe a fee for publication.

Beall also included OMICs on his list of “Potential, possible, or probable” predatory Open Access publishers (judged on these criteria).

The full text of the six page letter is embedded on infoDOCKET. Among the highlights are that criminal, as well as civil, charges are threatened, in both India and the U.S.

But perhaps most notable is the remedy requested: in addition to taking down the offending posts, promising not to make any more, and emailing Nature and the New York Times, which had cited Beall in articles of their own, OMICS asked Beall to pay them $1 billion dollars, plus $10,000 “for the cost of issuing this notice.”

Beall told LJ, “They try to make me answer a bunch of questions to justify [the posts]. Which I find ridiculous, because if they’re the ones bringing the action, they’re the ones with the burden of proof, not me. So I’m not going to answer the letter they sent. It is more like an extortion letter, in my opinion, than anything else.”

Beall’s list is not without its critics in the library field; Karen Coyle felt that some of the criteria make first world assumptions that aren’t valid worldwide, for instance, and Kevin Smith questioned why it is limited to OA publishers. However in the case of OMICS at least, Beall’s beef is substantiated by another authority: The U.S. government itself just last week went after the publisher for misusing the names of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the agency’s employees in promotional material.

The Chronicle of Higher Education quoted Jonathan Bloom, a lawyer with Weil, Gotshal & Manges, New York, as saying that the effectiveness of the suit would differ depending on whether it was filed in the United States or India. If the suit was filed in a U.S. court, Beall would probably win if his statements were true. If it was filed in India, the outcome would be less clear, because India’s Information Technology Act makes it illegal to use a computer to publish “any information that is grossly offensive or has menacing character,” not just false information. However, according to the Chronicle, allegations of misuse prompted the Indian government to tighten the rules last November, so that such a complaint must first be approved by a police deputy commissioner or inspector general.

This isn’t the first time Beall has received a threatening letter over his list—he got one from The Canadian Center of Science and Education just a couple of months ago—but he told LJ that none of the others have (yet) proceeded to actual litigation, though he did not comply with their demands.

The situation has several factors in common with the well-publicized plight of McMaster University librarian Dale Askey, who is still embroiled in litigation with Edwin Mellen Press (EMP) for opinions he expressed about the press on his personal blog while he was employed at Kansas State University (K-State). EMP, which had originally included McMaster (but not K-State) in the suit, has dropped the case against McMaster following widespread criticism, but the suit against Askey personally continues. Among the commonalities is the intersection of the web’s international scope with different legal landscapes in different jurisdictions; both presses have sought to invoke more restrictive laws from abroad against statements made by librarians who were working in, and speaking from, the U.S.

Askey told LJ that McMaster is currently covering his legal fees, and expressed solidarity with Beall’s situation, as well as offering some advice: “The Jeffrey Beall news is disturbing. If anything, however, what he’s being threatened with is so outlandish ($1 billion!!, jail time!!!) that it’s almost hard to take seriously. From the reports I’ve read, he’s being sued in India, and possibly also charged with a criminal offense. Thankfully, unless he has property or interests in India, he can literally ignore such a suit and would be wise to do so. If they’re dumb enough to sue him in the U.S., he could bat that aside legally using a variety of means that I lack here in Canada, not least the many anti-SLAPP provisions that various states have passed. I don’t know him, but hope I might meet him at some point since we’re dealing with very similar issues.”

This article was featured in Library Journal's Academic Newswire enewsletter. Subscribe today to have more articles like this delivered to your inbox for free.

Meredith Schwartz About Meredith Schwartz

Meredith Schwartz (mschwartz@mediasourceinc.com) is Senior Editor, News and Features of Library Journal.

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