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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

How Special is Special?

This may, unfortunately, come across as more law professor navel gazing, but I'm interested in the signaling function of placement in specialty journals. I write primarily in intellectual property. There are a lot of journals out there which focus exclusively on intellectual property, technology, the arts, or some combination of the three. One can instead, if the planets align right, also publish an article in a general law review.

I recently had to decide whether to place an article on copyright law with a specialty journal or a law review at a top 100 law school (according to USNWR). As a young, untenured scholar, I see trade-offs and uncertainty. If I want the casual reader of the particular journal to take interest in the piece (and we might wonder whether there is such a person), my odds are better if I place the piece with a specialty journal. It is possibile that an article in a well-received specialty journal might become part of the discourse more easily than an article in a respectable law review, if scholars in my field are watching the output of specialty journals. (Note my use of terms like "well-received" and "respectable," ill-defined adjectives to compare things that may not be comparable.) I also can't help thinking ahead to the tenure process.

Letter writers in my field will know the specialty journal, and have some idea about its relative strength in the field. My tenure committee, on the other hand, may have little or no idea about a given specialty journal, but they will have priors about a law review. If an article is fantastic, it is fantastic, but it is hard to divorce placement from quality. All things being equal, I would prefer the imprimatur of the Harvard Law Review to that of the Michigan State Law Review because readers will assume things about the relative quality of the piece. I mean no disrespect to Michigan State. I love Tom Izzo. I'm not convinced that the difference between the Harvard Law Review student editors and the Michigan State student editors is so significant that it should impact the quality of the final work product. Nevertheless, proxies matter.

What will the tenure committee make of the specialty journal? For example, what might I send when the choice is between the Michigan State Law Review and the Michigan Telecommunications and Technology Law Review? Does the average tenure committee member know that MTTLR is the 3rd-strongest IP specialty journal in the U.S., according to the Washington & Lee rankings? If my CV includes a piece placed in Duke Law and Technology Review (online), does a tenure reviewer see a placement in a specialty journal at a top 20 law school (USNWR), a placement in an online journal, a placement in a top 10 IP journal (W&L), or a missed opportunity to place the piece in a real law review (W&L ranks the New York Law School Law Review as essentially equivalent).

Let me forestall two obvious rejoinders. First, I am fortunate that I had good placements to choose from. Second, I'm sensitive to the critique that we worry too much about scholarship and too little about students, but as I see it, if I want a long career teaching the law, I need a viable career as a scholar. And I got into this business because I think I have something to say, and I want what I say to reach receptive audiences.

So, when you look at a specialty journal, what's your proxy of choice? USNWR ranking of the home institution? Do you have a sense for the few journals at the top, and lump the rest together? Are you cognizant of and do you give any weight to the W&L Rankings? Are online journals second-rate institutions or the wave of the future? Likewise, what value do you place on peer-reviewed or peer-editing? Inquiring minds want to know.


Posted by Jake Linford on May 11, 2011 at 10:13 AM | Permalink


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All good info in the comments, I think. My work thus far has been pretty specialized with an international focus. Personally, now that I've firmly established my niche, I intend to write more generalized scholarship. I don't intend to abandon the narrow issues; I'll just write about them less. I recommend that you not fret over each individual article, but mix up the placements a bit as tenure approaches. Good luck!

Posted by: Jen Kreder | May 12, 2011 12:08:40 PM

Great, great post Jake (awesome title too). I think the question you’ve raised is one every scholar will wrestle with if you submit to specialty journals. And the question is in no way only slightly important. Proxies are HUGE – especially for junior faculty. Let’s face it: most people will not read our articles. They’ll just simply look at where they were placed (in the aggregate) and make a quick decision about our scholarly chops. A quick presumption, if you will. We can disprove that presumption (or confirm it) if they read the articles, but even still, first impressions matter. I also think one’s particular situation varies quite a bit in terms of your home school (what do the people who matter at your school say you should do) – and your previous publication record (if you’ve only ever published in specialty journals, a flagship publication can definitely be the right move). With all of that said, here's my more general views:

I personally tend to think, in terms of a formula, that whatever we say the formula is, the specialty journals at Harvard and Yale are in a league of their own. My personal sense would be that the mainstream view is more like +60 for most specialties, but +40 for the specialties at Harvard and Yale. I also think there is a very real element of risk for junior faculty. If we say, for the sake of argument, that it is the mainstream view that specialties are worth +40, there will always be some people in the academy who will think a specialty is far, far worse than that. Perhaps they think +100 – or just simply “not very competitive due to the low number of submissions”. When you publish with a main law review, there may be some discrepancy for how people view the journal – but not much (for most law reviews). For example, if you publish your article in Hastings Law Journal, some people may think of it in terms of USNWR, some Washington & Lee, and some peer rep – but for any of these Hastings is going to fall pretty squarely in the 30-45 range. Or take Florida. Maybe USNWR, maybe W&L, maybe peer rep, but for most people, it’s a top 50 journal. It’s just typically fairly predictable how people are going to think of a flagship placement. Compare that with an awesome specialty: Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review. Some are going to consider that the equivalent of a top 20 placement – others may (ignorantly) think of it as high as top 60. I’m not even sure there is a mainstream view for how a placement in HCRCLLR is going to be perceived. The bottom line is that, IMO, it would be risky to turn down a top 25 flagship offer to publish with HCRCLLR. (My apologies for referencing specific journals, but otherwise it's a pretty abstract discussion.)

Posted by: anon vap | May 12, 2011 11:30:24 AM

I've published in both general and speciality journals, and had both excellent and excruciatingly terrible editing experiences with editors on both sorts. (Indeed, I have had both very good and very, very bad experiences with different editors of the same journals in different years.) I think the quality of the editing will depend more on personal characteristics than general smarts: even very smart students can be complete assholes who don't realize they know a lot less about grammar, usage, and structure than they imagine. I think in IP in particular, most potential letter writers will find and read your article (or not) wherever it gets placed, because the IP professoriate seems to pay great attention to the SSRN subject-specific listings. That means you have only good choices. You probably should rule out any journal that restricts your posting of your draft pre- and post-publication on SSRN or BEPress, but otherwise, I would walk into your law library, look at a couple of issues of the journals you are considering, and choose the one that has work in it you'd be proud to be published next to.

Posted by: Jessica Litman | May 12, 2011 8:55:09 AM

I would say there's very significant variation here. In my own field (IP) I think there is one specialty journal that is the equivalent of a top 30 law review placement (and maybe even better). Then there are a couple more that I personally would take over a top 50 journal. Sometimes it depends on the nature of the article - certain articles make sense in the Columbia Journal of Law & the Arts, and I think that's a pretty good secondary journal. I'm not sure, though, that you can just do a US News + 40 calculation. Some specialty journals beat that, others don't at all.

To James Grimmelman's point, I do think this is a place your outside reviewers can matter, though some amount of the value of the placement is idiosyncratic to your institution and will matter before and to the exclusion of your outside reviewers. The only meaningful advice I ever got about this is to talk to your dean/associate dean before you accept an offer, educate them about specialty journals in your field, and get them on board before you decide.

Posted by: Mark McKenna | May 11, 2011 3:35:08 PM

A couple of thoughts (based on a submission 5 years ago and another this cycle - both as an unknown).

1) My first submission was only to speciality journals - I just didn't think general law reviews would accept the piece. I also knew next to nothing about the whole process. It was accepted by a well-ranked speciality journal at a Top 15 school. The piece has been well-received and cited relatively frequently. This time around, I submitted only to general law reviews because I was advised that for hiring purposes (I just received a VAP and will be on the market in a year) it would look better to have a general law review publication. I submitted late but accepted an offer at a school at a T80 school. That school is ranked below 100 in the W&L rankings but I was advised that those rankings are less important than USN ones.

2) The editing experiences at the speciality journal was far better than it has been at the general law review - so far. Last time around, the article was reviewed first by a social sciences professor, who had some good comments. There was the usual nitpicking in terms of citing every damn sentence by the law review editors but they were professional and in some cases helpful. This time, my first "substantive" review has been painful in part I think because the editor is just not that smart - none of the substantive comments have been helpful at all and many of the line edits are just wrong. I'm beginning to regret just a little bit not withdrawing and waiting for the fall cycle...

Posted by: anonymouse | May 11, 2011 12:07:03 PM


What lead to the misery? I can see active editing as helpful where the editing really helps shape the article, and active editing as essentially unhelpful (please provide a footnote for every sentence in the article).

Of course, your response also begs the question - "high ranking specialty journal" according to which metric?

Posted by: Jake Linford | May 11, 2011 11:25:00 AM

I don't know the answers, but here are a couple points:
1. I've been told to add 40 to the US News ranking, and that's where a specialty journal might be perceived by others
2. I've also been told to look at who else is publishing in the specialty journal - if they are authors that you would like to be associated with, then OK
3. My most cited article was published in a specialty journal from a school just in the top 100. That article led to invitations to speak at conferences, write book chapters, etc.
4. Addressing Katie's question: The most miserable editing experience I've ever had was with a high ranking specialty journal.

So, I think YMMV.

Posted by: Michael Risch | May 11, 2011 11:22:26 AM

I'm also curious as to whether people who have placed pieces with both specialty journals and general law reviews have had substantively different experiences working with the student editors. On the one hand, the latter are likely to be more highly ranked in their class (albeit perhaps from a lower ranked school). On the other, the former might have particular interest in and knowledge of the subject in question, which you'd think would make a difference.

Posted by: Katie | May 11, 2011 10:51:44 AM

I ask this from a position of (untenured) ignorance, but isn't it part of the job of your outside reviewers to inform your tenure committee about specialty journals where relevant?

Posted by: James Grimmelmann | May 11, 2011 10:49:07 AM

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