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Monday, February 27, 2006

Publication Venue as a Lagging Indicator of Quality

Over at the ELS, Max Schanzenbach weighs in on the pros and cons of peer-reviewed versus student-edited law journals; Max essentially ends in equipoise.  I recently posted on the same issue.  I am wary of perpetual navel-gazing (especially my own, which ain't pretty), but this seems like an issue that is on the minds of many young academics.   I think some of this unease is traceable to a period of transition affecting both the law and social science academies.

Specifically, law is drifting toward the peer-review model because (a) empirical legal studies are in high demand because they supply hard facts in an academic discipline awash in normative polemics; (b) barriers to data collection and analysis have fallen rapidly, which means there is an abundance of important and tractable projects awaiting capable researchers; and (c) student editors have no special ability to assess the rigor of this work, and the lack of technical sophistication by most law faculty have sent them reeling for some external assurance of quality, which peer-reviewed journals provide.

Re the tumult in the social sciences, or at least economics and its various applied branches, the interminable delay of the peer-reviewed single submission process has been one of the primary drivers for the growth of SSRN (and the crossover for economics and finance explains why biz law professors dominate the SSRN law rankings).  A scholar can lay claim to an idea by posting a polished working paper; if it is any good, it will be downloaded, discussed, referenced, and presented at conferences before it appears in a journal.  A dossier of unpublished papers on SSRN is a good strategy for a junior social scientist (or law professor) to build his or her career as he or she waits for journal acceptance and publication–i.e, validation of quality.

But for both law and the social sciences, peer-review now operates on two levels: (1) established scholars, after a lengthy editorial process, accept an  article for publication; or (2) established scholars working in the same field gravitate toward the best work in pre-publication form.  Because of changes in the cost and flow of information, reputations are now being formed based on route #2.  In other words, publication venue is a lagging indicator of quality.

Posted by Bill Henderson on February 27, 2006 at 11:23 PM in Peer-Reviewed Journals | Permalink


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Ummm, do you have any substantiation for saying that "law is drifting toward the peer-review model," or is it mere speculation based on the fact that law profs always complain about student editors?

Posted by: anon | Feb 28, 2006 8:26:26 AM

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