Monday, February 8, 2010

Spring Window for Law Review Submissions

Twice each year, brief windows of opportunity and (mostly forlorn) hope open for law professors with newly minted works of genius (or not so genius) to place in the hundreds of mostly student-edited law journals in the US. Two two windows are, roughly, from mid-February to the end of March - corresponding to the changing of law journal editorial boards - and mid-August to the end of September - corresponding to the return to school from summer clerkships, internships, etc. Most law journals accept submissions at other times as well, but these two windows are deemed optimal to ensure that submissions will actually be read (by someone) and not lost under piles of hundreds of other submissions. 

Generally speaking, the law review placement process is an moderately elaborate game of strategic interaction between article authors, whose reputation depends on placing articles in the top-tier journals (about which there is not too much disagreement), and student editors at those same journals, whose reputation depends on obtaining articles from the best-known scholars at the top-ranked law schools. Pathologies of this game include: (a) "letterhead bias," where the reputation of the author's institutional affiliation is used as a proxy for judging the quality of the article because student-editors are by definition non-experts in all legal fields; (b) subject-matter bias among non-specialty law journals, with bad articles on constitutional law preferred to the best articles in tax law or administrative law, because student editors think (and law schools train them to think) that constitutional law is the most important area of law; and (c) half-baked law review articles by the top echelon of legal scholars (we all know who they are, and wish we were among them), who only need to submit a bare outline of a stale idea, which the student editors are more than happy to flesh out into an article.

Despite those biases (and others), almost every submitted article eventually finds a home somewhere because of the sheer number of student edited law journals. Every law school now has anywhere between 3  and 7 journals - one general law review, and several specialty journals, organized by topic, methodology, jurisprudential stance, etc. According to this recent empirical study, just three schools, Harvard, Yale, and Columbia now publish a total of 29 law journals. Most of the journals publish between 2 and 6 issues each year. All told, the hundreds of law journals (only counting those in the US) publish thousands of articles every year, most of which are authored by law professors. I don't have better data on precise numbers of articles published each year. However, I do receive each week a print-out of the tables of contents of just about every law journal that is published. Each weekly print-out may reference 100 or more new articles. I am happy to assume that every article published in every law journal is a significant piece of scholarship that many scholars (or even normal people) might benefit from reading. The total volume is, of course, too much for any bounded rational human to even skim through.

The Spring 2010 submission window will be opening shortly, and scholars have been busy compiling schedules for which law review boards turn over when in order to optimally time their submissions (see, e.g., this post at Concurring Opinions blog). I have some nostalgia for the days of preparing copies, envelopes and mailing labels. Today, there is an electronic submission service (for a price, of course), called ExpressO, which substantially reduces the information and other transaction costs of submitting articles to law journals. 

As my colleagues are gearing up the ship their new articles through the submission window, I confess to feeling a bit left out. It's been a long time (more than a decade) since I regularly published in student-edited law journals. These days, I tend to do so only under commission relating to a presentation of symposium. When I'm not busy with a book project (or projects), as I am these days, the articles I write are geared more for peer-review journals not just in law but in economics, political science, even game theory. I don't publish in peer-reviews just because I oppose the pathologies of student-edited law journals; after all, peer review journals have pathologies of their own, including editorial biases and long time lags between submission and publication, which can be just as off-putting. I tend to find that professional editors have a greater understanding of and appreciation for the kind of interdisciplinary work I do. 

Sadly, or perhaps not, there are no special submission windows for peer-review journals, which operate pretty much year round. So, as my colleagues frantically gather information in an effort to optimally time the law-review submission window, all I can do is sit and watch them from the sidelines, trying to give whatever advice and comfort I can.

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