Why I abhor the Edward Elgar Publishing Company

An Edward Elgar (the company) representative emailed me, hoping to meet me on an upcoming visit to Caltech. I replied with a curt response that in my opinion the company is bad for academia, because it reprints existing articles at high prices. (Some are as high as $500, such as Multinational Enterprises And Host Economies.) Now a reasonably priced book of readings can be a useful thing for a class, but imagine the professor that assigns a $500 book to a class. Even with the high price of textbooks, there would be a huge sticker shock and possibly an angry riot. Because the books appear to me to represent poor value, I would never voluntarily work with Edward Elgar (the company).

The second, and admittedly peevish, reason I didn't like Edward Elgar (the company) is the letter they send when they reprint an article. They have reprinted a couple of my articles. The letter (and I don't have one at hand so I'm paraphrasing) says, in effect, 'because you transferred your copyright to a journal, we don't have to ask your permission to reprint your article nor pay you for the privilege.' The letter doesn't come with a picture of someone sticking out their tongue but perhaps it should.

[Edit: I'm not sure exactly why I find these letters irritating. Here is one I received so that you can judge for yourself. My recollection wasn't accurate, although informing me "as a courtesy" certainly implies that they don't need to inform me, as indeed they do not. So perhaps some of my irritation arises from the fact that the transfer of copyright has removed the author completely and I am irritated by that. If so, I've blamed the messenger. I find the offer to sell a copy of the book at 25% of the cover price very irritating, since at 25% Elgar is making a substantial profit over marginal cost.

The American Economic Association forces Elgar to obtain the author's permission to reprint. The difference in Elgar behavior is telling: they offer a free copy of the book.]

The Elgar representative, Alex Pettifer, was surprisingly persistent. He argued that I didn't understand the value being generated and that many of their volumes involved original content. I didn't manage to learn how many of their volumes involve a substantial portion of original content, as opposed to the introduction by the editor to a collection. In spite of several emails back and forth, I still don't know how much of their content is original. Judging from the The International Library of Critical Writings in Economics series, which has 233 books, and over 400 volumes, there remains a great deal of high-priced reproduced content in Edward Elgar (the company)'s portfolio.

Pettifer also said

"The majority of our authors have published with us at least once, highlighting the quality of service we offer"

I described this quote as a "hoot," and asked if any of them publish with Elgar twice.

The next email I received was from Edward Elgar (the person). Apparently Mr. Pettifer had shared my correspondence with Edward Elgar (the person). I didn't previously know there was a living person named Edward Elgar. Edward Elgar (the person) spends most of his lengthy email arguing that my views about the social value of his company are incorrect. Most of these remarks are reasonable in the sense that that they confront my statements with a counter-argument on the merits, even if I disagree with his conclusions.

For example, Elgar says "You consider it ‘a hoot’ that authors publish with us many times" and goes on to name three authors who have published with them twice, and a fourth responsible for perpetrating eleven volumes. Hmm. So at least four authors are repeat authors, accounting for at least 17 of their 3000 volumes. In any case Mr. Elgar apparently missed that the hoot was "at least once."

Mr. Elgar also said something very useful:

"It is not our policy to reprint material against the wishes of the author and had you and your co-authors requested us not to reprint, we would have respected your wishes."

So when you receive their letter informing you that they are reprinting your article in spite of not being required to ask your permission, you can say no!

While most of Edward Elgar (the person)'s email is devoted to the merits, or lack thereof, of my opinion, he ends with a very threatening paragraph:

"In conclusion, I think that your correspondence with Mr Pettifer contains statements that are demonstrably false as well as totally unwarranted, libellous comments on my character and the publishing activity of my company."

I have now asked twice for permission to post both my complaints about them (which Elgar described as libelous) with their responses on the web, and have been denied. Having a public debate is the only method I know to reach consensus and agreement. Their responses, by the way, are extensive, albeit poorly quantified. You may draw whatever conclusion you like from the unwillingness of Edward Elgar (both) to have this discussion in public, and from their threats to me for expressing my opinion.

Mr. Pettifer also claims that Elgar's emails to me are protected from dissemination, although apparently mine are not, since he shared mine without my consent. The law on dissemination of emails is murky. For postal letters, the recipient owns a letter but may be prohibited from reproducing it. The limited use I have made of their communications here falls squarely under fair use.

I don't consider myself an expert on Edward Elgar (the company). I don't consider myself an expert on Iraq but I have a strongly-held opinion that I don't want to vacation there and would advise my friends not to do so as well. It is in this spirit that I expressed an opinion about Edward Elgar (the company) and it is over this opinion that they are threatening me. In my opinion, the behavior of Edward Elgar (the company) is antithetical to the academic enterprise and I discourage everyone from editing, contributing to or buying Edward Elgar books.

Preston McAfee, January 2009.

Postscript: I'm not the only one who thinks Edward Elgar (the company) books are expensive: Ariel Rubinstein recommends against buying the Edward Elgar book he edited! (Scroll down for the book and then click on the link.)

PPS: Mr. Elgar has since written me and said that he does not intend to take legal action against me. He also confirmed that Edward Elgar Publishing will not reprint articles against the author's wishes even if the copyright is held by another party. Once again Mr. Elgar has prohibited printing his email but here is the text of my response:

I appreciate the conciliatory tone of your email and your statement that you do not intend to take legal action against me. I have amended my web document on your company to reflect this statement.

I appreciate that journals rarely alert authors about granting of reprinting privileges and that it is a good thing your company does so. In the early days of your enterprise, alerting authors was probably substantially harder than it is today. (I have never had difficulty finding economists – initially using the AEA directory and subsequently with the web.) You might consider amending the text of your letter to authors; I am not the only recipient who found it irritating.

You may note that in my initial response to Mr. Pettifer, I asked him not to contact me again. I agree that further communication is unlikely to achieve anything. However, feel free to continue to copy me on your correspondence with Professor Bergstrom. While I have an opinion about the social value of your company and use colorful metaphors to express my opinion, I am a scientist and concerned with the truth of the matter. Should you persuade Professor Bergstrom that your company is a valuable contributor to the mission of universities, I would likely be persuaded as well.

PPPS: I received this response from Mr. Elgar on Jan 28, 2009. It included two attachments: his first email to me (which the quote marks have turned into weird O's in every language my system supports, not present in the original and clearly unintentional), and some endorsements. I find the endorsements unpersuasive -- even rotten movies seem to have endorsements, and Elgar's eye-popping prices are apparent -- but you be the judge. Here are my responses to Mr. Elgar's points.

PPPPS (Feb 7): Yet another email from Mr. Elgar has arrived. He primarily focuses on the policies of the Western Economic Association International, which publishes a journal, Economic Inquiry, that I happen to edit. Let me clarify for anyone who happens to read this page that I am not a voting member of the board of the WEAI and nothing I have written should be construed as a WEAI policy. I serve as editor at the board's pleasure and they can fire me today. (Don't throw me in the briar patch!) Mr. Elgar talks about the policies of "your journal," and while I control the content being accepted for publication, I don't control WEAI copyright policy nor do I set the rates charged to Mr. Elgar's company. A board member emailed me today asking if I would take down this document, because then Edward Elgar Publishing might be willing to have a booth at the annual meeting. Coincidence? I explained why the answer is no, but if you have read this far, you had probably already deduced why, and could probably even guess a colorful metaphor to express it.

The neverending saga with Edward Elgar Publishing is turning me into a blogger, which I had never intended to be. By the way, this document is on the first page of the Y search results for "Edward Elgar Publishing" and the second page of G's. (Catch up G!)