• September 22, 2014

Publisher Threatens to Sue Blogger for $1-Billion

Jeffrey Beall is a metadata librarian at the University of Colorado at Denver, but he's known online for his popular blog Scholarly Open Access, where he maintains a running list of open-access journals and publishers he deems questionable or predatory.

Now, one of those publishers intends to sue Mr. Beall, and says it is seeking $1-billion in damages.

The publisher, the OMICS Publishing Group, based in India, is also warning that Mr. Beall could be imprisoned for up to three years under India's Information Technology Act, according to a letter from the group's lawyer. Mr. Beall received the letter on Tuesday from IP Markets, an Indian firm that manages intellectual-property rights.

"I found the letter to be poorly written and personally threatening," Mr. Beall said. "I think the letter is an attempt to detract from the enormity of OMICS's editorial practices." Mr. Beall believes he has documented all the statements he made about OMICS.

The blog and the list, which is known to librarians and professors simply as "Beall's List," has led to Mr. Beall's being featured in The New York Times, Nature, and The Chronicle. The list now features more than 250 publishers that he considers to be "potential, possible, or probable predatory" companies, 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 OMICS Group's practices have received particular attention from Mr. Beall and some publications, including The Chronicle. In 2012, The Chronicle found that the group was listing 200 journals, but only about 60 percent had actually published anything. The owner of OMICS, Srinu Babu Gedela, said then that his company was not a "predatory publisher" and was ramping up to be a "leading player in making science open access." IP Markets said OMICS was started six years ago and has 500 employees.

On his blog, Mr. Beall accuses OMICS of spamming scholars with invitations to publish, quickly accepting their papers, then charging them a nearly $3,000 publishing fee after a paper has been accepted.

He also alleges that the publisher uses the names of scholars without their permission to entice participants to attend scientific conferences and then promotes those conferences by using names "deceptively similar" to well-known, established conferences. For example, just one hyphen separates OMICS's Entomology-2013 conference from the Entomological Society of America's Entomology 2013 conference.

A Threatening Letter

The rambling, six-page letter argues that Mr. Beall's blog is "ridiculous, baseless, impertinent," and "smacks of literal unprofessionalism and arrogance." The letter also accuses Mr. Beall of racial discrimination and attempting to "strangle the culture of open access publications."

"All the allegation that you have mentioned in your blog are nothing more than fantastic figment of your imagination by you and the purpose of writing this blog seems to be a deliberate attempt to defame our client," the letter reads. "Our client perceive the blog as mindless rattle of a incoherent person and please be assured that our client has taken a very serious note of the language, tone, and tenure adopted by you as well as the criminal acts of putting the same on the Internet."

In an interview with The Chronicle, Ashok Ram Kumar, a senior lawyer with IP Markets, repeatedly mentioned the criminality of Mr. Beall's blog posts. In India, Section 66A of the Information Technology Act makes it illegal to use a computer to publish "any information that is grossly offensive or has menacing character" or to publish false information. The punishment can be as much as three years in prison.

The letter makes several demands, including telling Mr. Beall to remove the blog posts and to send e-mails denouncing his own blog to the publications that have featured his work. Even if Mr. Beall complies, however, Mr. Kumar said, his client still intends to sue and to have Mr. Beall face criminal proceedings.

"What he has written is something highly inappropriate," Mr. Kumar said. "He should not have done something like this. He has committed a criminal offense."

While Mr. Kumar said he and his client are "very serious" about the $1-billion amount, Jonathan Bloom, a lawyer with Weil, Gotshal & Manges, in New York, said it seemed more like a publicity stunt. "Sometimes people just want to puff their chests, indicate their reputation, and try to intimidate people that criticize them," Mr. Bloom said.

Litigation's Uncertainties

Mr. Bloom said the effectiveness of the suit would differ depending on whether it was filed in the United States or India, a decision OMICS has yet to make. If the suit was filed in a U.S. court, Mr. Beall would probably win if his statements were true. If it was filed in India, the outcome would be less clear, Mr. Bloom said, though it is still not likely he would have to pay $1-billion.

"But even if you come out on top in the end, being forced to litigate is a problematic thing," he said. "It's costly and can still damage your reputation."

It is also not likely that Mr. Beall would face three years in prison, said Mark Wu, an assistant law professor at Harvard University. The vagueness and allegations of misuse surrounding Section 66A of India's Information Technology Act have led to a public outcry in India, Mr. Wu said, and, last November, the Indian government modified the rules to make them stricter. Now, in order for a complaint to be registered under Section 66A, it must be approved first by a police deputy commissioner or inspector general.

"Given this change, I have a very hard time believing that it would be used in this case," Mr. Wu said.

Regardless, OMICS is "definitely going to proceed" with the suit, Mr. Kumar said, adding that it was only a matter of time before further action was taken.

This isn't the only time Mr. Beall has been threatened with a lawsuit because of his list. In February, the Canadian Center of Science and Education threatened to sue him after he included the center and three of its related companies on the blog. He said he was not sure yet if the center had proceeded with the lawsuit.

Mr. Beall said that when he started the list, in 2010, he never thought about a journal publisher's suing him. A university lawyer later told him such actions were likely.

Indeed, a librarian in Canada remains embroiled in a similar lawsuit after criticizing a scholarly-book publisher on his blog in 2010.

Even so, Mr. Beall said, the size of the damages the OMICS Group says it will seek was unexpected.

"The amount is silly—I haven't done any damage to their operation," he said. "The case has no merit, in my opinion."

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