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Wednesday, May 30, 2018

How to make a better law review

Law reviews are doing more than ever these days. They don't simply solicit articles for publication and host an annual symposium. They have social media accounts, podcasts, online supplements, exclusive submission windows, and more.

But with more than ever, I wonder if somethings journals aren't simply doing something because they feel they ought to be doing something. So, what does a good law review do these days? Following up on some good thoughts at The Faculty Lounge a couple of years ago, I offer my own here. A good law review should think about a few things--and perhaps even do some of them. (I should add that I'm not an advisor to any journal but have served in that role in the past.)

But full disclosure to set expectations: I'll avoid the biggies, like "revamp the submission cycle"....

1. A good law review starts with a good website. It means it has regularly updated content and decent navigation. It means it has a good RSS feed that pipes out content. If a law review website is poor, social media cannot cure it. If your website is primarily stock photos, or a sub-page of your law school's site... it's probably not interesting anyone.

And the failure to update content? Even worse. You've exerted such terrific time, effort, and resources to select, edit, and publish this content. Why, then, in the last mile--really, the last few yards--fail to put it out there for everyone to read it?

I'm sure some readers scoff, "I thought RSS was dead?" Not for power users--that is, the people who are the most likely to find and share your content. Which group of users do you anticipate is most likely to share your work: the casual observer who stumbles on your page one day, or the person who sees the resent articles pop up in her Feedly feed in almost real time? (James Grimmelmann's comments at The Faculty Lounge capture this quite well.) I've worked to aggregate some RSS feeds of journals, but you can see some don't have one, and I've only just begun.

2. Promote articles, not journal issues. I know that law review staffers are obsessed with the issues in their volume. When an issue comes out in print, it's a really big deal. It's understandable to get excited about it! But think about how promotion in social media compares when promoting issues, not articles.

To pick one account's tweets consider the information communicated with a tweet like this:

This tweet is just fine. But... what's in the issue? That's what people care about! It might be that some people will engage with this tweet. But on its face, it's not immediately clear who published what, or why someone would care--except if you were really intent on viewing a new (generic) issue of the law review. Consider instead:

Notice what's included and not included. First, it includes a description of the piece, not the title. Titles of articles can be fine, but sometimes they are insufficiently descriptive, or too bulky for the medium. Second, the author is tagged! That's important, because, let's face it, my vanity on social media is the driving force for creating and promoting content (alas). But it also alerts your authors that you're out their promoting their work--and that it's available on their good, up-to-date website. If you can tag the author's institution (particularly if that author lacks a social media account), all the better.

3. Timing matters. I'm fairly consistently surprised to see my RSS feed update at 12:30 am ET on a Sunday, or tweets pushed out at 10 pm on a Friday. There are optimal times to release and promote content--usually peak business hours during weekdays. Pausing a few hours or days to update the website, or using a timed Twitter platform, can help maximize the opportunity to share content.

4. Consider whether and why other content exists. I've listened to many podcasts put out by journals. I've seen online supplements born, renamed, languish, reborn, reformatted, and languish again. There are law review blogs, or Twitter symposia, or live streaming symposia. In short, journals are doing lots of things we might loosely tag as "innovation."

But, why? To what end? Often, this other content feels like innovating for innovation's sake. It's sometimes tacked on, as if it isn't integrated with the rest of the stuff the journal is doing. Before launching into one of these labor-intensive endeavors, it might be worth considering what these other items of content are supposed to be doing. That I can't answer--it's an existential question that may vary from journal to journal. But, it can probably also help with the next piece....

5. A faculty advisor must help continuity and vision. Law reviews are student-run, and I think that's a good thing. (I won't wade into the debates here and elsewhere months ago about peer-reviewed v. student-edited; I'll leave my comments at this!) But often, new projects like podcasts, more novel content like online supplements, or even more longstanding elements like using the Twitter account and updating the website--often, these things can get lost in the transition from one editorial board to another. The vision might be lost, because the vision didn't reside in the journal but with one 3L who's moved on. The content might suffer because information simply isn't transferred from one board to another.

I'm sure faculty advisors have wildly different relationships with their journals. But from an institutional perspective of the law school, the law review can be one of the most valuable and visible assets of the school. It's also one of the greatest ways the school contributes to the scholarly enterprise and looks to create new knowledge. While I strongly endorse student-run journals, faculty guidance and leadership can help make sure that these journals are doing their very best work.

Many journals do many of these things quite well. But maybe there are a few things here that could help some journals improve.

Posted by Derek Muller on May 30, 2018 at 11:08 AM in Law Review Review, Life of Law Schools | Permalink


Nice post Derek. Here are a few more thoughts in this vein that I just tweeted out in a thread (yes, I'm still grading and thus procrastinating): https://twitter.com/chris_j_walker/status/1001852209410265089

Posted by: Chris Walker | May 30, 2018 11:51:39 AM

Very interesting post, Derek. Expanding on point 2, about how to promote articles on Twitter, here are two additional thoughts :

1) Include a screenshot of the abstract. You can't say all that much about the article in 280 characters, but you can take a screenshot of the abstract so that everyone who sees the tweet can easily read the abstract.

2) Tag professors actively on twitter who are in the field of that particular article. That points those professors to the article, flagging it for them, and it makes it easy for them to hit "retweet" so that they can broadcast the article to their followers. (You can also tag the professors in the field in a follow-up reply tweet, rather than the original tweet, if you're out of characters for the latter.)

Posted by: Orin Kerr | May 30, 2018 11:59:06 AM

From what is (correctly!) suggested here, article titles in law reviews are just as accurate and revealing of the actual content as they are... anywhere else in publishing, where the title of a work is ordinarily specified and approved by a marketing dork who hasn't read the piece. Fortunately, there aren't as many marketing dorks masquerading as the capital-letter Publisher at law journals.

But this, in combination with another suggestion regarding RSS (or Atom, for those who actually care about security issues), points to another issue: Who are the "power users" of law journal articles, and what attracts their attention? There are similar nonargument controversies elsewhere in publishing — both academic and otherwise — that are ordinarily suppressed because those who have the power (no, the other kind of power) have already come to a conclusion that fits their own preconceived notions... sort of like the preconceived notion that "law journal articles are not useful to law practitioners and vice versa."

Posted by: C.E. Petit | May 30, 2018 12:45:24 PM

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