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Friday, April 08, 2016

How Do I Make Sense of Online Law Reviews? (Jr. Law Prawfs FAQ)

As I mentioned on Monday with respect to whether to publish online responses to law review articles (or to allow law review editors to seek response(s) to one's own article), I planned on returning to the more basic question of how to make sense of the rise of the online companions to many general law reviews. To get us started, consider the following question Nancy Leong recently crowdsourced on Facebook from a friend who is interested in legal academia (reposted with permission):

For purposes of getting a job, which of the following article placements is best: (1) a print law review at a school ranked 50-100; (2) a print specialty journal at a top 15ish school; or (3) an online law review at a top 15ish school?

This isn't the first time I've seen such a question on Facebook, and a number of aspiring academics (and junior law professors) have asked me similar questions. Based on the responses to Nancy's FB post, my guess is that there are at least as many answers--many conflicting--as there are online law reviews.

My questions are a bit more basic (though I hope still important) than whether to place an article in the print or online journal: What's the purpose of online law reviews? And how should we view and use them as scholars (junior or otherwise)?

Outside of writing responses to law review articles (the purpose of which seems quite obvious), I've only waded into the online law review waters once. My colleague Paul Rose and I had authored a white paper for the Chamber of Commerce on cost-benefit analysis in financial regulation. (I plan on returning to white papers/reports/advocacy projects later this month.)  In doing that research we had what we thought was one pretty cool, but pretty narrow, argument that didn't fit in the report. We didn't want to write a full article because of other research obligations, but we also wanted to get it out there as the D.C. Circuit was considering similar cases and it was part of a hot academic debate. So we wrote up a few thousand words, and published the essay in an online law review. It attracted a fair amount of attention, got the idea out there in a timely manner (submission took less than a week and editing another couple weeks), and drew more attention to our white paper in the process.

If the purpose of the online law review is to get timely, short (2K-6K words) essays out there faster than the traditional law review, I think I understand the place of online law reviews in current legal scholarship. But that doesn't seem to be the case with at least some online law reviews, as Nancy's FB post indicates. Scholars now seem to be publishing much longer pieces in online law reviews. It seems, perhaps, that at least some law reviews are treating their online companions like the GAP to their print volume Banana Republic (or maybe the better analogy is the Banana Republic Outlet line to the more expensive BR line).

This is perhaps reinforced by the latest Washington & Lee Law Review Rankings, which were released earlier this week. In skimming the top-100 general law review rankings (based on the "combined" citation score), I was surprised to see a few online companions in the list. In drafting this post I took a closer look:  Among the general law reviews -- print and online combined -- the Stanford Law Review Online comes in at No. 52, the Yale Law Journal Forum at No. 70, Northwestern at No. 86, Columbia at No. 92, Penn at No. 123, Harvard at No. 125, Vanderbilt at No. 147, and Michigan at No. 148. So apparently scholars are reading them and citing them, more so than many other fine print law reviews. Further digging is needed to understand whether the online companions are becoming substitutes for other journals in those tiers with respect to medium-length articles/essays. Anecdotal evidence suggest that may be happening.

When working as a law student on the law review over a decade ago, the trend at the time was for law reviews to commit to publishing shorter articles, meaning fewer than 25K or even 20K words. While longer articles have their place in legal scholarship, I was hoping this trend would stick to encourage shorter, more accessible articles (especially to scholars outside of law who would consider our articles books) in addition to the more treatise-length articles we publish. That doesn't seem to have happened. I fear the online law review might be filling that void, and if so, I'm not sure what that means for legal scholarship.

Perhaps I'm mistaken, and online law reviews end up being what many of us hoped they would be: an opportunity to publish quickly an important idea on a timely law or policy topic in the form of a short essay (5-15 pages); an opportunity to respond to an article published in the law review; or an opportunity to have a fun dialogue or debate (minisymposium) on a timely topic in law or policy.  I have seen this done very effectively. Mehrsa Baradaran's postal banking essay comes immediately to mind,  in which she further developed an idea floated in one of her law review articles in response to the USPS releasing a white paper on the topic. She then wrote a full-length book on the subject, and Bernie Sanders has taken that idea further. That's just one of many examples that come to mind.

I hope this post sparks a productive discussion on how to make sense of online law reviews. I'd love to hear about others' experiences--both good and bad--with the online law review publishing process. Do online law reviews serve other useful purposes that I haven't flagged in this post? Am I even asking the right questions here with respect to the purpose and value of online law reviews?



Posted by Chris Walker on April 8, 2016 at 09:03 AM in Jr. Law Prawfs FAQ, Teaching Law | Permalink


What Brian said. I'm not sure why online journals need to have a separate purpose, except to kill fewer trees and reduce the cost of libraries.

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Apr 9, 2016 2:19:35 PM

Strikes me that the real question is, "What is the purpose of print law journals?" Or rather, why aren't the law journals just publishing everything online? Of course, implicit in that question is, "What is the purpose of law journals, anyway?" Is there a good answer? I doubt it.

Posted by: Brian L. Frye | Apr 8, 2016 8:28:13 PM

To follow up on Howard's post, I agree that different law faculties will value online law review essays differently. But controlling for those differences, I think there might also be a difference in how faculties generally treat them for entry-level appointments and for tenure. For instance, my guess is that many (if not most) don't count them formally for tenure except as a plus factor, but some of those same faculties might consider them formally at the entry-level stage as evidence of potential. Our committee definitely read and discussed them, for instance, even though I'm pretty sure they count for little at the tenure stage.

This follows up a bit on Eric's post earlier today about how the Coif counted the online law review pieces as scholarship. (As an aside, I reviewed both Georgia State's and Denver's Coif applications, and those were not close votes to approve; two really terrific law schools.)

Posted by: Chris Walker | Apr 8, 2016 4:13:47 PM

It seems to me the appointments question is basically the same as the P&T question--different faculty will value them differently.

I have written eight things for supplements, of all different criteria-response, short (< 5k words), time-sensitive, light subject that might not support a full article. And one included embedded video and audio. It matches my writing trend of doing shorter pieces, so I have welcomed their availability.

As to whether they have taken hold, there are a couple of pieces to that. One is whether they have become a scholarly expectation, such that we're telling a junior colleagues they should be publishing in them and that the tenure standard is not one piece a year, but one-plus a smaller piece that might fit an on-line format.

Another is whether the journals themselves are taking advantage of the technology. So is an online publication simply an uploaded PDF or are the journals taking full advantage of what the online format can do? Michael Froomkin talked about this at the JOTWELL conference a couple years ago.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Apr 8, 2016 4:02:02 PM

One other thought: Because coauthoring with professors was one of the highlights of my law school experience, I've really wanted that to be part of my scholarship agenda (it nicely mixes teaching, service, and research). But I've found it hard, so far, to make time to do a full-length article. One thought I've had recently is whether it would be a better experience for me and the student to focus on a shorter online law review piece.

Posted by: Chris Walker | Apr 8, 2016 10:31:40 AM

Already received a few emails in response to this post from aspiring profs. Pretty consistent theme in their questions: How do appointment committees/schools perceive online law review publications when assessing entry-level candidates?

I don't want that discussion to distract from the broader questions in the post, but wanted to get that question out there for the benefit of PrawfsBlawg community. FWIW, having been on the appointments committee here a couple times, my sense is that online law reviews definitely didn't count as full-length articles, but they were viewed as a "scholarship plus" on the CV and in the profile, especially if those online law review pieces built on their research agenda.

Posted by: Chris Walker | Apr 8, 2016 10:16:19 AM

Having just submitted a piece to online law reviews (yes, a data set of one), my sense is that editors of online law reviews would very much like to publish articles that are different in kind from print articles, not inferior: current pieces, akin to a long op-ed or a thought-out blog post, but available in Lexis/Westlaw and thus searchable and cite-able.

I suspect the reason that many don't is that the supply of such pieces is more limited than the editors would prefer. And so they publish longer pieces that couldn't find a home in a good law review. But this may not be a complete explanation. With the exception of Stanford Law Review which highlights online articles on their website, other journals tend to downplay online pieces: they prominently display and link to print articles, while online pieces are published in a column on the side of the page, in smaller print, and/or on a separate page. And so perusing law review websites one gets the impression that online pieces are treated as inferior, not different.

Would it make a difference if online pieces were also published in print, like Northwestern and Wash U already do?

Posted by: Urska | Apr 8, 2016 10:07:37 AM

I think one key is whether the online law review articles are available on Westlaw and Lexis. If they are (and many, though not all, are), then I think they are functionally the equivalent to regular print articles, albeit shorter and faster to publish. And, if they are, they may be replacing (or supplementing) the traditional print "essay."

Posted by: Josh Douglas | Apr 8, 2016 9:47:44 AM

I don't have great feedback, other than my own anecdata.

I've got two non-"response" online publications. They are both for short works (as you note), and both got no love with regular law reviews (as you note). One was written quickly for a very current issue, and one took some real research (it was empiricalish). One has been cited twice, one not at all. One (in Yale) got mentioned by interviewers when I was on the lateral market - apparently it's still hard to place, even at Yale online. So, getting them into name brand online reviews was a reasonably good thing - SINCE I WROTE THEM ANYWAY. If I was banking on these as heavy scholarship boosters, the payoff was really small and the opportunity cost too high. If I had something I was itching to write (or committed to write) that wasn't getting placed elsewhere, this was better than a desk drawer.

Posted by: Michael Risch | Apr 8, 2016 9:45:24 AM

Chris, my school was recently awarded Order of the Coif. During the process we were told by Coif that On-Line law law review publications would count. This was surprising but crucial to our application I think as the opportunities to publish in non-On Line elite law reviews for folks at non elite schools are quite limited and Coif seemed to be concerned about where articles and essays were published. Not sure how relevant this is to the discussion but thought I'd point it out:

Posted by: Eric Segall | Apr 8, 2016 9:38:31 AM

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