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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Some more blather about "best journals"

The other day Brian Leiter trotted out his new favorite toy (condorcet-compatible voting tools) to do a ranking of the "best law journals." Brian editorialized: "is there really any legal academic who thinks the quality of articles in, say, the Harvard Law Review is really higher than the quality of articles inJournal of Legal Studies or Oxford Journal  of Legal Studies or almost any of the faculty-edited journals?  I find that quite hard to believe, but I am open to being persuaded otherwise."  There's a pretty interesting comment thread to this question-- interesting if you're a dork like most of this blog's readership.

Anyway, my sense is that even if the overall quality of articles in OJLS (which I have seen cited only a few times in my area--I think a piece by Paul Robinson and John Darley is the only one that comes to mind) or JLS (admittedly, a great journal) were higher than HLR or YLJ, it would be hard to say that they are necessarily the best journals to publish in for academics in American law schools.  The quality of the articles is only one valuable metric to judge. But visibility and accessibility are important too--a point conceded by some (including Brian) in the comments. Indeed, for a good while, I don't think these journals were on Westlaw (which is the primary though not exclusive research tool I use), which makes citation more difficult.  

Moreover, there is an important submission problem associated with the question that I don't think was addressed in the comments to Brian's thread, but which was highlighted to me by a certain FOP named Zoom.  Zoom asks: what peer-reviewed journals publish articles in the standard law review format (footnotes instead of parentheticaly references)? I think the answer is not many, which if true tends to support the view [Markel] made on the Leiter thread that there are different streams of people who write for the two different sets of journals. If you're a philosopher, and your preferred publication sequence goes something like Top Philo journal, JLS, middle tier Philo journal, JLA, then of course you write it with the parenthetical reference style.  But if your preference is JLS, HLR, YLJ, JLA, then you skip JLS b/c it's a pain in the ass to write two different articles based on citation formats.

Update: A couple things I forgot to mention. I don't intend to shill for tout  the student law reviews, but the talk that peer reviewed journals solve the "network" effects by being blind seems naive. I've been a peer reviewer for pieces that are allegedly blind, but b/c of ssrn and just being up on what people are working on, it's not blind. And I've also been the beneficiary of comments (again, allegedly blind) whose authorship is relatively easy to discern.  The latter is less problematic than the former because the former situation has the reviewer still get to perform favors for friends (or remove opportunities for antagonists!) in relatively small areas of academic writing. Moreover, there are some faculty edited journals that are not strictly speaking going through blind peer-review. They're faculty edited in the sense that faculty choose the articles.  That allows for both cronyism as well as nimbleness in a tight market.  That's not to say there aren't journals with better practices and better articles, but we have to be careful about generalizing too broadly about the benefits of one "system" over another.

Posted by Administrators on March 17, 2009 at 11:35 AM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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Having seen peer reviewers' comments on a couple of things (not from legal journals), I have yet to be convinced that peer review is generally any better than the HLR comments I saw (from the inside). And having seen recent stories like this (not to mention the Michael Bellesiles scandal), peer reviewers seem to do worse than law students at catching basic factual errors. Peer reviewers don't cite-check.

Posted by: Stuart Buck | Mar 18, 2009 12:21:22 PM

Totally reasonable point. Implicit bias can be strong. As a formal matter, though, we encourage our Articles Committee not to use style as probative factor. I can say for certain that if citation style were something we considered strongly, we would have accepted different articles this year.

Posted by: Anthony Vitarelli | Mar 17, 2009 10:57:10 PM

Anthony, thanks for weighing in. I wonder in the end how unbiased the readers can be. My own anecdotal experience: when I was an HLR editor tasked with rotopools (ie, first reads), I am pretty sure there was an implicit bias -- call me crazy -- working in favor of pieces that looked polished and ready, and that standard was typically informed by whether it was Bluebookable. But that was ten years ago...and so student article editors are more sophisticated than I was then...or now.

Posted by: Dan Markel | Mar 17, 2009 3:20:21 PM

Dan --

Just speaking for YLJ, we hope that authors submitting to peer-reviewed journals would not preclude themselves from submitting to us solely because they used parentheticals rather than footnotes.

If it's a great piece and the author accepts our offer, we'll help rework the citations to make it fit our style. We definitely do not penalize or have any bias against a piece's citation convention at the submissions stage. Post-acceptance, we require that pieces we publish be footnoted according to the Bluebook, but that's separate from evaluating the piece's content.

All that being said, as an empirical matter, we hardly receive any pieces that are cited parenthetically, so Zoom's intuition may be being carried out in practice.


Posted by: Anthony Vitarelli | Mar 17, 2009 12:25:45 PM

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