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Thursday, June 22, 2006

Article Word Limits: More Qs for Law Reviews

Dave Hoffman started a discussion about law review submission practices going into the fall season.  In the same vein, I wanted to ask law review folks about how the new guidelines for article length were actually being implemented.

As summarized nicely here, many law reviews have implemented new standards about the length of the articles they will review and publish.  Generally these standards provide a limit based on the number of words.  The standards seem to come in two forms: (a) absolute limits that serve as a cutoff, and (b) preferences for what the review would like to see.  For example, this is Columbia Law Review's policy:

Effective February 28, 2005, the Columbia Law Review will no longer review nor publish articles or essays in excess of 37,000 words in length (including text and footnotes; measured by Microsoft Word's word count feature), barring exceptional circumstances. In addition, we will give preference to articles and essays submitted under 32,000 words in length.

Some law reviews have limits and preferences, while some just have preferences.  Here are some questions I have about the new policies:

  1. Are the preferences actually de facto limits?  When a law review says that it "prefers" articles of a certain length, does it actually use those preferences as a screen?  Or are the preferences just one factor used in an overall evaluation of the article?  Given the massive number of submissions, I can see how law reviews might limit their screening process to articles within their preferred lengths.
  2. Do articles over the limit ever get considered?  The Columbia limit allows for exceptions in "exceptional circumstances."  Do these ever come up?  What might they be?
  3. How is the policy enforced?  In other words, how are the words counted?  When a review gets an electronic submission through ExpressO or a website submission process, it is easy to get a word count.  But what about hard copy submissions?  Is there a rough words-per-page estimate applied?  Given the variety of fonts and margins available to authors today, I would imagine that it is hard to get an accurate word count from a hard copy.  Does that mean hard copy submissions are disfavored?  In addition, are tables of contents included in the word count?  Abstracts?

I'd love to hear from law review editors about this, as well as law profs who have had experience either as advisors or potential authors.

Posted by Matt Bodie on June 22, 2006 at 03:12 PM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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Heft was never dispositive, but it mattered. As a general rule, if an article weighed a bunch, and it started off with reinventing wheels, and didn't get me really excited, I usually ended up tossing it around page 10 or 20. As another general rule, if an article was very light but ended up reinventing wheels and didn't get me really excited, I ended up tossing it. my scrutiny of what constituted "reinvention" of wheels probably increased with the weight of the article.

We had no strict word limit, and in fact accepted some articles above what's considered the de rigeur limit, because they had something to say. We also conditionally accepted one article on the condition that it be cut down.

So specifically:

1. No, they weren't de facto limits last year.
2. Yes. Exceptional was "I started reading and I was hooked immediately." Exceptional was not used as a code for "the author was famous" either. In one case, I'd never heard of the author; in the other, the author was an untenured professor.
3. Once we reach a certain stage, we request an electronic copy, and do a word count from there. For that reason, and also because I tried to reprint versions that all appeared to be in the same format for the final read to get rid of looking-pretty-bias, I really hated getting PDF versions. Authors, never do this!

Hard copies: we got pretty good at eyeballing it. We know that some fonts are more condensed than others, and made a generic guideline by reformatting a file a bunch of times at the beginning of the year. After a while you could pick stuff up, flip through the pages, and have a pretty good idea. Footnotes are included in word count; table of contents, who knows? I don't think it should matter, as table of contents are tiny, and anyone who would reject your article at 32,121 words and accept it at 31,198 is pretty lame.

Posted by: Former Articles Editor | Jun 26, 2006 10:27:48 PM

For better or worse, all articles that come through the submissions system, even when they are grossly too long or the ranting of an incarcerated and paranoid individual, get read. (To name two examples from this year.)

And I think there is a substantial possibility that we will publish at least one article this year that is longer than 35,000 words. That said, I think articles longer than the length limit are definitely disfavored. This is only partly caused by the policy. It also represents the fact that many members of the articles committee simply like shorter articles themselves. I can think of one article we will publish this year that was originally three times as long before the author broke it into three separate articles, and I doubt we would have published the long version.

Posted by: YLJ Articles Editor | Jun 23, 2006 3:53:45 PM

Thanks for your comments - they're very helpful. I was hoping you might be able to answer some follow-up questions as well. For other readers out there, here is the YLJ length policy: "The Journal strongly encourages submissions of less than 30,000 words (roughly 60 Journal pages) and strongly discourages submissions of more than 35,000 words (roughly 70 Journal pages)." Is the 35,000 limit strictly enforced? I can imagine a sitaution where an article is 34,500 without the abstract and table of contents, and 35,200 with it. Wouldn't that make it too high with the extras? Or do you take a more generalized approach? Is the 30K - 35K zone de facto disfavored?

And for hard copy submissions, is there an initial eyeball test for articles that are, say, 200 typewritten pages?

Posted by: Matt Bodie | Jun 22, 2006 5:36:44 PM

We receive (thankfully) very few hard-copy submissions, and for those hard-copy submissions that make it very far in our screening process, we usually request an electronic copy.

I've never seen an article where the table-of-contents and the abstract made the difference in whether or not the word count was suboptimally high.

Posted by: YLJ Articles Editor | Jun 22, 2006 3:34:39 PM

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