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Friday, July 15, 2011

Cite Pimping

Every law journal likes to have its articles cited. It gets the journal's name out there, and it pushes up the journal's place in the Washington & Lee law review rankings. But it's not cool to pursue this at the expense of scholarly integrity.

It's come to my attention that there is at least one student-edited law review out there – a good one – that has adopted a policy of pushing/requiring their authors to include in their article some citation to an article previously published in that same journal. The editor explained to a professor I know that this was "for our promotional purposes."

Whoa. I gotta tell you, that's a really bad idea. If any student law review editors out there are reading this (and I know you are), I really recommend that you not start doing this, and if you are already, then you should cut it out immediately. (And I also recommend that you tear yourself away from PrawfsBlawg long enough to go outside and get some sunshine. Gee-wilikers. It's summer!)

For a journal to manipulate the scholarly content of articles for promotional purposes and, apparently intentionally, to game some law review rankings, that just reeks. It's wrong for the same reason it's been made illegal to endorse a product, while being paid to do so, without disclosing the sponsored nature of the endorsement.

I am disturbed that the elite students at a law school would adopt such a policy, because it shows a lack of sincerity in their participation in legal academe. But I might be even more worried about what it portends for them as practicing lawyers. Blithely sending e-mails that document embarrassing organizational behavior is malas noticias.

Look, if the journal had an internal practice of trying to identify its own previous articles that might be on point, and then presenting these to the author as suggestions for further research, that might be sadly pragmatistic, but it wouldn't cross the line for me. But to tell an author – a professional scholar – that he or she has to accept a cite to a previous volume so that the journal can promote itself? That's seriously cringeworthy.

By the way, I write this post in full knowledge I've been called a pimp for writing about my own projects on PrawfsBlawg. So you don't need to point that out to me in the comments. And for the record, what I'm talking about here is completely different. Promoting yourself in the open is one thing. Promoting yourself under someone else's byline is another thing entirely.

Posted by Eric E. Johnson on July 15, 2011 at 08:45 PM | Permalink


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Of course I wouldn't argue that accepting bribes to push cites is acceptable. (Nor did I argue that pushing self-cites is acceptable.)

My issue comes with this: "After all, if I get a suggested cite from law review editors, I assume that they are offering it because they think it would improve the piece."

In conjunction with this: "it is accurate enough that one would never include a cite without seeing that it minimally fits to support the proposition"

As far as I can tell, the level of scrutiny you're saying you apply (which is, I'd say, the minimum I'd expect from an author) already surpasses the assumption you're saying you make based on the suggestion. That is, if you're checking to see that the cite supports the proposition (and, presumably, that the proposition would benefit from support) then you're already checking that the proposed cite "would improve the piece."

The scholarly problem with recommending self-cites rather than external-cites seems to be that the editors may not be recommending the strongest citation. But you don't say that you put so much weight on their advice (and doing so, it seems to me, would be unwarranted. After all, it is the author-as-expert's job to be familiar with the literature and aware of the best things to cite, and it's the student editor's job to be able to make helpful suggestions for things that the author may have missed.) So I'm not clear on what damage this kind of hidden preference for suggesting self-cites would do that isn't attributable to the author not finding better citations herself.

Some sort of coercive requirement to cite a journal's own previous work in exchange for publication involves a manipulation of power granted by rankings to solidify that power, which makes the rankings less meaningful and self-perpetuating. Non-coercive suggestions for self-cites, even if the motivation isn't explicit, strike me much more as rational choices balancing limited time, a desire to be helpful, and a perhaps subconscious bias towards thinking that one's own journal actually tends to publish stronger articles than other journals. That's why the latter strikes me as much less troubling.

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Jul 19, 2011 12:26:23 AM

This cite pimping seems bad. But it pales in comparison to the badness of (a) the undue influence exerted on student editors to give preferential consideration to home school professors, particularly junior professors (I was told this was to make them look more tenurable and help them shop their work elsewhere), even though those same professors grade and recommend those same student editors for jobs; and (b) the practice of non-blind review in which not only does one's name accompany the article, but one is also to include a CV!

This is a scholarly charade. There should, at a minimum, be a ban on professors publishing in their home school Law Reviews. Or we should treat law reviews as no more than vanity presses and publishing outlets for the well-connected.

It is hard to believe that one would even raise the issue of this cite pimping practice as some sort of scholarly travesty given this background context. Law Reviews are an open joke, as far as scholarly standards go (with well-meaning students being the last to blame for this situation). I would think that self-respecting, ethical, well positioned prawfs should have long since taken their work to those developing peer-review outlets, and/or done much more to reform the student-edited journal world.

They mostly don't, of course, because it's an easy game now for well-credentialed folks.

(A few very top LRs have moved to blind-review and minimal peer review, but this often means using a home school referee (better, but far short of most disciplines' review standards) and a piece from a home school faculty member is hardly blind if it has been workshopped and/or taught locally.)

Posted by: Former EIC | Jul 18, 2011 4:42:02 PM

A modest proposal: to avoid the pimping problem and triage the huge volume of Expresso submissions, maybe editors should just give a priority read to those submissions that already cite their journal.

Posted by: Former L Rev Editor | Jul 18, 2011 3:05:54 PM

Andrew, it is accurate enough that one would never include a cite without seeing that it minimally fits to support the proposition. But the motivation of the person making the suggestion still matters, because the amount of scrutiny is lower than otherwise. Put it this way, if the editors were getting bribed by someone else to push cites on a $100 per cite basis, you certainly would not be arguing that the author would be checking to see that the cites support the proposition and thus the bribery is OK.

Posted by: TJ | Jul 18, 2011 2:02:05 PM


I would assume that if an author allows a piece to be published under their name with certain citations, then they've read the cited works and decided that they're worth citing and support the relevant proposition. Is that not accurate?

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Jul 18, 2011 11:05:32 AM

As one of the people who thought open self-promotion was mildly embarrassing, it follows that I find this even more disturbing. But let me ask why, if editors simply had an internal policy of pushing cites on authors -- without telling authors about it -- that would somehow make things better. That comes way too close to saying that if you can cover something up, it is OK. After all, if I get a suggested cite from law review editors, I assume that they are offering it because they think it would improve the piece. My decision on whether to incorporate that suggested cite would be substantially affected if I believed their motivation was different. As a personal matter, I would much prefer student editors transparently condition the acceptance of my article for publication on them being able to push cites on me (where I could then decide if I want to work with such a group of editors), than them not telling me about it and surreptitiously trying to do so in the editing process.

Posted by: TJ | Jul 17, 2011 4:24:42 PM

We learned it by watching you. Yes, you, the Deans that hire only from schools in a particular US News range. Yes, you, the professors that will shop up our offer to a journal ranked two spots higher in the W&L rankings. Yes, you, the administrators that will fudge employment stats to game the rankings and swindle unsuspecting applicants.

Whatever the merits of pumping cites, one should realize that the systemic manipulation of data started with the adults. Law review editors were raised in an environment where data-fudging was seen as advantageous and necessary. If professors are suddenly shocked by the actions of their students, they ought to look in the mirror and ask why.

Posted by: Junior Associate | Jul 17, 2011 1:41:06 PM

I have to agree with 4thyrLawProf that, unfortunately, law schools relentlessly teach students that successful grownups juke the stats.

Posted by: John Steele | Jul 17, 2011 8:39:18 AM

Question: why do law review editors care about whether future rankings will favor their law review or not? It's not like the 2015 W & L library survey will have any effect on the Podunk Law School law review editor, class of 2012, in any way that I can imagine.

Posted by: David Bernstein | Jul 17, 2011 8:27:13 AM

When I was a law review editor, we didn't necessarily do this to every article, but if a proposition needed a citation, we certainly looked for a cite to our journal as opposed to some other. But we usually pointed this out to the author and let them have the final say.

Posted by: Sean M. | Jul 16, 2011 8:19:58 PM

hmmmm... maybe I should start citing other articles from the journals I publish in so that the rankings of those journals go up and hence I will look like I got better placements...

Posted by: Jessie Owley | Jul 16, 2011 2:20:51 PM

I agree it's unseemly given prevailing professional norms, and therefore a bad practice. At the same time, I understand that law students might reasonably not be aware of those norms -- while at the same time being very much aware of the heavy focus on cite numbers among law review editors. Given that, I think the best answer is to call this a goof and move on without much judgment of the editors who came up with the idea.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Jul 16, 2011 1:55:04 PM

That is distasteful but it seems something of a minimal harm in practice. If it is a good journal, it would be rather easy at some point to cite to a previous article, particularly given the tendency of journal articles to have lots of footnotes as it is. It is probably likely that many writers would do that at some point anyway, particularly since the journal would be one of the first things they would search for relevant source material. I realize that it is a bad policy and the mentality involved can lead to other bad choices.

Posted by: Joe | Jul 16, 2011 1:02:39 PM

Oops, sorry for the poor cut and paste. "Thanks for ...." was supposed to be at the top.

Posted by: 4thyrLawProf | Jul 16, 2011 8:46:16 AM

I'm reminded a bit of that anti-drug commercial in the 80s in which, after his father finds his stash of drugs, the teen boy tearfully says "I learned it form you, Dad. I learned it from you!" The dismayed father turns remorsefully from his son, fully appreciating the error of his ways.
Thanks for this interesting post, Eric.

In this age when billions of trees are cut down to create law school cross-promotional materials and every facet of the law school is tweaked to game the USN&WR rankings (including the less than fully honest employment data reporting and the nearly wholesale abandonment of need-based scholarships for sake of attracting students with higher LSATs and UGPAs), I can't help but think that these journal editors learned this mindset from us.

..except we haven't yet turned away remorsefully, fully appreciating the error of our ways.

Posted by: 4thyrLawProf | Jul 16, 2011 8:43:33 AM

But which journal was it?

Posted by: William Baude | Jul 16, 2011 8:33:22 AM

Eric, I can't believe that you mentioned the fact that you've written articles on this blog. How gauche!

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Jul 16, 2011 12:16:26 AM

wouldn't that only matter to the extent someone is trying to "rank" journals by raw journal citations?
I don't know why the rankers can't exclude self-cites....or, more entertainingly, disclose the ratio of self-interested citations to total citations and count it as a negative in the rankings algorithm.

by, the way, don't journals hold symposiums issues in celebration of this phenomenon?

Posted by: Errrr | Jul 15, 2011 10:43:39 PM

Yeah that's sketchy.

I remember in my journal editing days being sorely tempted to remove all the self-indulgent tangentially relevant self-cites in the articles that came across my desk. I managed to restrain myself for the most part though.

Posted by: Patrick | Jul 15, 2011 8:54:29 PM

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