Adventures in 21st-Century Publishing : VDM / AlphascriptJune 15, 2010
This spring, a faculty member asked me to look into a book that was listed for sale at Amazon, but not listed in Worldcat. The book is titled History of Roman-era Tunisia: Praetorian prefecture of Africa, Exarchate of Africa, Shoshenq I, Phoenicia, Carthage, Hanno the Great, Hannibal, Syphax, … Utica, Tunisia, Berber people, Jugurtha with the author: Frederic P. Miller, Agnes F. Vandome, John McBrewster, eds.
I did some investigation and what I found raised concern (and my eyebrows!). Here is the Amazon page. (The book is listed as out of print, although it was only published Oct. 12, 2009; it was in print 2 months ago when this topic came up.) If you click on the name of the first editor, Frederic P. Miller, you get 39,748 results at Amazon (as of this writing), on a vast variety of topics (Catwoman, Electric Vehicle Batteries), all edited by Miller and the other two co-editors listed above. A very prolific editorial team, to be sure!
The publisher is Alphascript Publishers, which has a website. They describe themselves “publish[ing] more than 10,000 new titles [a year]” and as ” one of the leading publishing houses of academic research.” They also describe themselves as “specializ[ing] in publishing copyleft projects.” I had to look up “copyleft,” which turns out to be a general term referring to open licensing for content, i.e. the GNU General Public License and the Creative Commons ShareAlike License.
When I Googled for Alphascript Publishers the situation cleared up. There are Yahoo Answers, forum emails, and blog posts inquiring about or investigating this publisher, and the consensus is that the publisher assembles books based on Wikipedia articles, perhaps using some computer algorithm for selecting an array of articles on related subjects. They apply for ISBNs and list the “books” at Amazon, only printing them when an order is actually placed. The legality of the practice (on the part of the publisher and Amazon both) is questioned by some; I do not have the skills to assess these challenges. Legal or not, a bound version of Wikipedia articles freely available online is definitely not, for most would-be purchasers, worth the $40-$80 price asked for these “books” at Amazon.
The parent company, VDM Publishing, also apparently finds scholars who have recently completed theses or dissertations and emails them to with an invitation to publish, at low or no cost to the author. At least one school (Michigan Tech) has added a comment on this practice to its FAQ for dissertation writers, noting that while the company is a publisher, because there is no peer review, publishing with them is unlikely to further one’s academic career. The practice is also discussed in forums where PhD students tend to congregate.
Very strange indeed! Librarians and scholars should both be aware of this brave new world of publishing. While I am in favor of creative commons licensing, open access, and making works of scholarship more widely available, I don’t think VDM Publishing is the way to go about achieving the open access revolution.