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Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Ills of Expediting

In response to my recent post on the law review submission system, Carissa Hessick quite helpfully asked me to more fully explain what I view as the "ills" of the expedite game.  I had taken that for granted in my post and when I sat down to think about it, I realized that I hadn't made that case very well.  So here goes:

 Expediting is bad because it is chiefly, if not solely, aimed at achieving reputational advantages, not about increasing the quality of ideas.  Because I think the quality of ideas should be paramount in scholarship, and reputation irrelevant, I thus think that expediting is a waste of authors' and editors' time.  

To illustrate this, let's first acknowledge that the gold standard for article selection is blind review.  The editors should not distract themselves, the argument goes, with noisy proxies like an author's home institution or the names in the first footnote.  What matters is only the quality of the article.  Now let's flip the frame: how should authors pick the place they want to publish? Shouldn't they rely only on quality as well--i.e., the quality of the editors, editing process, etc.  But that's not what is going on when we expedite.  We expedite because we want to be published in a T14 journal so that the world will (presumably) know what great scholars we are. We rarely (maybe never) expedite so that we obtain an increase in editing talent.* (I accept that some journals have better editors than others, but it's not clear to me that a school ranked #8 has better editors that one ranked #14, and so on. I think such information is mostly unknowable.) So I guess I'd sum it up this way: why should we expect editors to ignore reputation when selecting articles (blind review) but allow authors to pursue reputation above all else when selecting a journal (expediting). Put differently, if we cut down on expediting, we also cut down on reputation chasing, and thereby encourage everybody to consider everybody's else's work on the merits, not according to journal title.  

* Some might argue that expediting is occasionally appropriate to obtain better publishing terms--whether in terms of copyright or date of publication.  If this is so, I wonder why professors seemingly always expedite up, rather than up and down.  If you submit to journals 1-50, and get an offer from journal #35 that gives you unfavorable publication terms, you should seek alternative offers from journals both higher and lower than #35--at least if you are focused on the publication terms alone and not reputation.      


Posted by Jack Preis on September 26, 2017 at 09:42 PM | Permalink


Answer to last question: there are some authors who have the luxury of choosing which of HLR/YLJ's editorial processes to use, what the relevant timelines are, in which one they published their previous work/their past experience, which school they "like" more (are alums of), etc. This is all obviously at the very margins. If there are other reasons (I'm agnostic on whether any of them are "good" reasons), the best place to ask would be the "all-star" professors who find themselves in this position (and FWIW, it's not just older professors -- there are younger professors who've been in this position, too.)

Posted by: Former Editor | Oct 3, 2017 1:21:05 PM

I think we can all surmise where Former Editor went to school based on the one school conspicuously absent from his/her list. I do have to wonder: if an author has an acceptance from Yale, why would he/she need or want an acceptance from Former Editor's journal? Is there some advantage beyond an ego boost to be gained by expediting using a Yale acceptance? I never had an article accepted by Former Editor's journal or by Yale, and I would love to learn about the considerations informing the choice between offers from journals of that tier.

Posted by: anon | Oct 2, 2017 3:18:46 PM

Matthew, anything's possible, but I doubt it.

Former editor writes: "The only instances in which we truly did a closer look at the article based on the expedite from another journal is if that journal was Yale, and, to a slightly lesser extent, Michigan, Chicago, Stanford, NYU, or Columbia."


Posted by: Orin Kerr | Oct 1, 2017 11:55:05 PM

Derek, I do not care if an article has been published at all. I regularly cite to unpublished work, including my own students' work from classes I've taught, draft dissertations, etc.

For myself, I'd be glad to just put my own work up on SSRN and be done with it. I'd also be glad to publish in low-ranked and/or online journals. But this won't get me tenure, I'm afraid.

And, to Jack's point, I don't know that I get a ton of editorial assistance (though I've never placed in a T14, so maybe it's better up there). However, I do get some. More importantly, the law review publication process does encourage me to read and edit my own work far more often than I would if I could just post on SSRN and be done with things. But that's true whether I publish at Hofstra or Harvard.

As for Orin's point, is it possible that when you were a junior scholar, people were--at least sometimes--reading your work in print rather than online? If so, that could explain why your higher placed articles got more attention; those articles were easier to find. As we've migrated to finding articles strictly by searching online, I'd hypothesize that this has become less true. But this is purely conjecture.

Posted by: Matthew Bruckner | Sep 29, 2017 3:38:19 PM

Derek, to some extent I agree with you; indeed, often I find unpublished stuff that's better than anything on the subject that's already in print.

The awkward reality of the situation, however, is that because academics have incentives to subject themselves + the rest of us to the journal structure, usually unpublished stuff is unpublished because it's unfinished, and when finished it will promptly end up in a journal. So I'm not sure there are actually a significant number of cases where people just throw stuff up on their websites and call it done.

Interestingly, this is another one of those cases where the opposite is true for peer reviewed-land. Because it's so difficult to get papers through peer review, there have been cases where really good papers have sat around for years, being cited by people in pre-publication form but not actually published anywhere. And I can think of at least one case where a very famous and important scholar in political philosophy just never bothered to publish at least one important paper. (As I recall, it was a G.A. Cohen paper, there might actually have been several, that never got published but were cited constantly and ultimately landed in print only in an edited volume after his death.)

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Sep 29, 2017 10:53:11 AM

If authors lie, as suggested by anon above, then editors will catch on and build that into their considerations. I don't think the system punishes "innocent authors" because this happens, to the extent it does, to some *kinds* of authors (the "big scholars"). And I doubt it's a problem in the opposite direction because "big scholars" don't need editors doing them any favors.

I agree the system is problematic, but that's a symptom of larger problems. When law students are told (by professors, by society, etc.) that things like affirmative action, diversity in hiring, etc., are important criteria for selection, they take that into their own acceptance processes as well, which is why, often, they do look at author identity, (especially later in the cycle, when many slots are full and they want to "round out" their volumes).

Posted by: Former Editor | Sep 29, 2017 10:24:06 AM

If it were true that journals review papers taking into consideration that the authors may not accept their offers based on credentials, then we have a serious problem. It punishes innocent authors who actually will accept the offers from journals they submit to based on the bad behavior of those who would not. It also harms the ability of big scholars to publish minor pieces that would not be accepted in the big journals. And, finally, although this operates in the opposite direction of what we typically think of as letterhead bias, it is still letterhead bias.

I think this gives further support for my contention that it is better that authors lie about journal acceptances for expedites rather than submit to journals whose offers they would not accept. And it is further sign of the sickness in the system.

Posted by: anon | Sep 29, 2017 8:49:26 AM

Matthew and Paul,

If you start your research by going to a site like Google Scholar and from there perform your own evaluation of the sources, do you then care if the paper was published in a law review at all? Would you distinguish between an article published in Middling U. Journal of Law and one published nowhere but a professor's own personal website?

...Okay, norms of the profession will signal that the self-published paper was probably terrible or else why wouldn't the prof get it published in a law review. But setting aside those norms for a moment (or maybe imagining that the author is just staunchly against the law review structure, and his work is otherwise of fine quality), would you care at all if the paper were just on his site, or just on a university page?

I imagine a lot of people do research in a similar manner. I know I start with Google rather than something like Academic Search Premier as well. I've landed on papers through professor bios often enough (identify the leading folks in the field, find their bio, check the CV, and if you're lucky there's hyperlinks).

It's not as if you need to rely on some institution which has invested in expensive printing presses in order to get work out, so why not push to simply cut out the old middle man? You can still hire students to do editing work, just as the journal would have provided, so the substantive part of the process remains intact. You just cut out all the angst and gamesmanship.

Posted by: Derek Tokaz | Sep 29, 2017 7:32:57 AM

(And to be clear about my previous post, I don't mean to imply anything about (a) Hofstra, which was just the example an earlier poster used; or (b) the list of places that would raise our eyebrows [you can add/subtract 1-2 from that listing; places like Northwestern are often coming up with new ideas for submission procedures that last a few years and then fall away, much like the word limit count a few journals tried some time ago]).

Posted by: Former Editor | Sep 29, 2017 1:07:05 AM

In response to a point made by (among others) the "anon" poster at Sep 27, 2017 4:24:31 PM, while it's true to some degree that a system of expedites amounts to a system whereby editors at lower-ranked journals do the screening legwork for editors at higher-ranked journals, I'm not sure it's actually all that much work.

In my experience, when we were made aware that an author who submitted to us had had an offer made by another journal, we would certainly take a look at that piece, but (1) we would have taken a look at that piece in at least a cursory way anyway as soon as it came in (that is, within 1-2 days) to see if it was in the ballpark of pieces we'd consider accepting; and (2) an expedite offer by (e.g.) Hofstra would not really move the needle with us if we didn't like the piece on first impression. We were also very much aware that some schools make offers that the author (based on biographical info/credentials) was not likely to accept (i.e., the author would file the expedite notice with us, but we were pretty sure the author would rather hold over the article to the next season than accept the expedited offer).

The only instances in which we truly did a closer look at the article based on the expedite from another journal is if that journal was Yale, and, to a slightly lesser extent, Michigan, Chicago, Stanford, NYU, or Columbia. I suspect other journals sorted themselves into their own bands as well.

The upshot: (1) expediting works effectively within but not as much across bands; (2) the "legwork" provided across bands is not really that effective; (3) editors at law reviews are well aware of all the gaming and maneuvering authors will attempt, and often counter-plan these measures to the extent they can (again depending on which band they fall in).

All of this is anecdotal, so feel free to dismiss it, but it's also informed by correspondence with editors at similarly situated journals. (We talk to one another, too!)

Posted by: Former Editor | Sep 29, 2017 12:57:43 AM

I have a paper that was accepted only by a sub-T100 journal. The paper was subsequently winner of a best paper award in a conference within the field and was praised by scholars in that field. I will not name the field, but let's just say it's a bar exam subject.

Posted by: anon | Sep 28, 2017 1:12:49 PM

I have a question for the relatively experienced folks in this conversation. Many people (myself included) have published in law reviews with a fairly wide variety of "rankings." What's your sense about how the relative quality of your own articles has correlated with the ranking of the journals they're published in?

Just to put my own cards on the table, part of my extreme skepticism about the utility of rankings is driven by my evaluation of the relative quality of my own publications. I do not think my best law journal pieces are the ones in the highest ranked journals, not by a long shot. But, consistent with (and partly driving) my views about the relative usefulness of law review vs peer review, I do think that my best peer reviewed journal pieces are the ones in the highest-ranked journals.

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Sep 28, 2017 12:52:28 PM

Thanks to all for engaging on this issue.

TJ's comments, which a couple others echoed in one way or another, are a good counterpoint to my idea. TJ argues that having your article in HLR is a signal that your article is preferable to most other articles because HLR editors have the pick of the litter and decided to choose yours. I think TJ is correct on this and stand corrected--but I think his point is limited to HLR and other similarly positioned journals. Most people probably do expedite to HLR and similar-positioned journals, but they do not ONLY expedite to those journals. They have an offer from Wake Forest and then expedite to Illinois, or they have an offer from Georgia and they expedite to Alabama. I have to confess that I'm not even sure where these schools rank on US News or W&L, I just pulled them out of a hat. But that is sort of my point. The "signal" that I perceive from a Georgia placement is nearly identical (if not identical) to an Illinois signal, or a Wake Forest, or an Alabama. But even if the signals were not effectively identical, one has to decide whether to put any stock in the difference. I'd feel sort of rotten inside thinking that one scholar was better than another simply because she usually published in Illinois rather than Georgia. And I'd resent someone else thinking that about me.

Carissa's comments are also a good counterpoint as well. One small point she makes is that, even though expediting might be a waste of editor's time, its hard to think that it's a waste of author's time. I think I have to agree with this given how incredibly easy it is to expedite these days as well as the chance that one might land at a journal that might be deserving of a more prestigious reputation (see my comments re TJ, above). But even if it is not a waste of time, there is still the ethical question of whether its right. I didn't really frame my point as an ethical one (I talked about wasting time) and to be frank, I don't think I know enough about the field of ethics to say for sure what is ethical or not in this context. All I can say is that it seems like expediting trades on our baser instincts to apply labels to things and people--even when the labels are not fully justified.

Carissa also make strong points when she talks about reputation and how a good reputation can be useful in having an impact on the world. Reputations, like all forms of mental short cuts, are simply a fact of life. We all have one whether we want one or not, and we might as well try to make ours as good as possible--particularly if we are interested in using our reputation to achieve some important policy objective. In the world of legal scholarship, top placements suggest that are top scholars, or that a single article in a top journal is a great piece of work. You, or your work, is likely be more impactful because of this and it thus makes sense to expedite. I agree, but as in my response to TJ, that vast majority of expedites are not to the top 5 or 10 journals, it is from journal #37 to #26, etc. I don't see much reputational advantage in such a move (and if there were, I'd would also suggest that such advantage is unmerited).

So, with the helpful comments above, what about this for a proposed guideline on expediting: if you have an offer outside the top 10, you may expedite into the top 10 (to obtain valid repetitional advantages) and if you have an offer inside the top 10, you should not expedite at all (because you have already obtained those advantages). I fully understand that there could be some debate about my cut-offs here; I chose "top 10" simply as a placeholder for "journals who have the pick of the litter and thus may reasonably be said to publish, on average, the highest quality legal scholarship." And please don't ask whether expediting from #11 into the top 10 makes any sense given my comments above- I'm just trying hazard a rough guideline here. And finally, all of this talk of rankings is with apologies to Paul Gowder. I agree (as you might expect) that rankings are bunk, but am just trying to work out a solution here.

Posted by: Jack Preis | Sep 28, 2017 11:23:04 AM

I agree with TJ, Carissa, and anonymous commenters on the modest usefulness of law review placement. My longer defense of that is: http://prawfsblawg.blogs.com/prawfsblawg/2011/07/law-review-rankings.html

Having said that, the expedite process, especially as it now functions in the era of costless (to most tenure-track authors, at least) widespread submission, is problematic. It creates costs and moral quandaries that, given the moderate value of the signal placement provides, may be hard to justify. I therefore think we all need to think hard about reform, although my core principle would be to preserve the signaling and perhaps motivational values that perceived rankings hierarchies and selectivity can provide. So not persuaded by Jack, but glad that he is to prompt more conversations about this.

Posted by: BDG | Sep 28, 2017 11:21:00 AM

Hi Jack:

I really appreciate you taking the time to post in response to my comment. That said—-and I’m sorry if it seems like I'm harping on this--I'm afraid that I still don't see the "ills of expediting."

You say: “Expediting is bad because it is chiefly, if not solely, aimed at achieving reputational advantages, not about increasing the quality of ideas. Because I think the quality of ideas should be paramount in scholarship, and reputation irrelevant, I thus think that expediting is a waste of authors' and editors' time.”

Does that mean that whether expediting is bad depends on agreeing with your conclusion that “reputation” should be “irrelevant” for academics? Because I would suspect that many disagree with you. I know that I do. (And not just because it is human nature to want people to think well of us.)

Obviously one should not have a good reputation as a scholar unless she has good ideas. But I don’t think that “good ideas” is all we should care about as scholars. I think we should also care about how we frame those ideas, how we execute those ideas, and how accessible our writing style is. Those are things that I happen to think student editors are quite good at assessing.

Also, the best ideas in the world are meaningless if other people aren’t made aware of them. That is why we expect academics to publish, rather than merely to think deep thoughts. Reputation and placement allow us to ensure that more people know what our ideas are. That is because, for better or for worse, whether you are considered “fancy” in your field and where you publish can affect how many people read your work. Of course, those who are deeply engaged in a particular subject will read everything that is published on that subject. But many of us read outside of our narrow areas of expertise. And when we do that, we are likely to read far less. In those instances, where an article was published can be used as a sorting mechanism for the traits I mentioned above—how well an article is framed, how well executed it is, and how well written it is. And someone’s reputation is also a signal that their ideas are likely to be taken seriously by others (and so perhaps you ought to take them seriously as well).

Finally, I don’t think that we should be agnostic about how many people read our scholarship. If more people engage with my particular ideas, then I will further refine those ideas and my scholarship will improve in the long run. So a good placement today, can actually help improve my ideas tomorrow.

To be clear, expediting may very well waste the time of student editors—especially student editors at lower ranked journals. But I don’t think that it wastes the time of authors. And I don’t think that reputation and quality of ideas/scholarship are as distinct as you suggest.

~ Carissa

Posted by: CBHessick | Sep 28, 2017 10:07:33 AM

A couple thoughts:

(1) Hiring committees and tenure reviewers do take journal ranking and placements as signaling. As do many other folks who are not interested in reading the actual scholarship, but want to assess the scholar in a cursory way.

(2) To me the only reason I feel bad about expediting is that, in practice, it shifts the work burden to lower ranked law review editors to screen articles for the higher ranked journals. And, because of expediting, it is work that rarely pays off for the lower ranked editors. They are used as means... But maybe I'm sensitive because I once was a lower ranked editor that read a lot of stuff, and made a lot of offers on pieces I knew we would never get...

Posted by: anon | Sep 27, 2017 4:24:31 PM

Matthew Bruckner asks: "Is it really the case that you read stuff from higher-ranked journals but not lower-ranked journals?"

I would put it differently. I noticed when I was a junior scholar that others tended to read my stuff that appeared in higher-ranked journals more than they read my work that appeared in lower-ranked journals. Of course, *I* would never rely on such a proxy. No, never. But it turns out that a not-insignificant-number of other people do.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Sep 27, 2017 3:29:12 PM

There is plenty of evidence in the "Angsting Thread"s that many scholars submit papers to lower-ranked journals with no intention of actually accepting the offers. Rather, they do so only to generate some basis for expediting to higher-ranked journals. This practice wastes time and resources, insults the work of student editors, particularly those at lower-ranked schools, and betrays the educational mission of the legal academy.

One can easily appreciate the dubious morality of submitting to lower-ranked law journals to generate acceptances for expedites by comparing it to lying about acceptances for expedites. Lying is dishonorable. Still, I think there is a good case to be made that lying is actually better because, when scholars lie about acceptances, they have not wasted the effort of student editors at those journals whose offers they would never accept.

Posted by: anon | Sep 27, 2017 12:38:05 PM

(That last comment wasn't terrible clear, because I'm about to rush off to teach. That is, even for people outside law, I don't think law journal rank does any good. peer reviewed journal rank does.)

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Sep 27, 2017 10:00:37 AM

What Matthew said. Typically, when I'm deciding what to read or cite, I search for material by topical relevance or by a graph-traversal-style search from papers/authors I already know. The identity of the journal doesn't enter into it, with the *possible* exception of the extreme lower margin (that is, if an article in the West Trump University School of Law and Automotive Repair Journal of Twitter Insulting starts badly, I may be less likely to give it the benefit of the doubt and read on, relative to something else). But this is, I think, based on a rational-ish judgment that if a paper starts badly, *and* couldn't even get out of the total dregs of journals, the author was probably phoning it in and/or a crank, and thus can be safely ignored.

Note that this is not true of peer-reviewed journals, especially in disciplines I'm not expert in but even in disciplines I do know. If for some reason I need to know some result from, say, economics, I'll definitely prefer something in the AER to something in The Rando Elsevier Cash Cow Journal of Economic Economiciness, because peer review makes the judgment of economists as a discipline available to me, and I happen to need that judgment when I'm wandering afield.

But even for people outside law, I fail to see how journal "rank" does any good, just because (once you get past the W. Tr. U. S. of L. & Auto. Rep. J. of Twi. Ins. level) that signal is not present.

Which, going back to the original point of the post, suggests that this expedite garbage does indeed waste everyone's time. Because ranking isn't even a good signal of quality, at best, it creates work for people in order to send a lousy signal of quality to the handful of people who will be taken in by it (namely, as far as I can tell, journalists, hiring committees who need frivolous excuses to filter down their pool of candidates, and maybe tenure committees that have to be answerable to people from fields where journal rankings track some kind of meaningful information?)

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Sep 27, 2017 9:57:52 AM

Is it really the case that you read stuff from higher-ranked journals but not lower-ranked journals? I Google what I'm looking for and then read what I find, regardless of whether it's in the Harvard or Hofstra Law Reviews. I assume that I know better what's good scholarship than the editors at either Hofstra or Harvard.

Posted by: Matthew Bruckner | Sep 27, 2017 9:45:00 AM

I'm also not sure that author preference in contexts where there is blind review and no expediting functions the way it's described here. No one chooses the American Political Science Review over the "Midwest Politics Journal" because APSR has better editing. They choose it for exactly the same reason law profs choose, say, Harvard over Hofstra: signaling.

Posted by: anon | Sep 27, 2017 8:27:20 AM

If we assume that higher-ranked journals will on average publish better scholarship, allowing authors to expedite to get the highest-ranked offer they can serves two useful scholarship-related functions. First, it helps to bring attention to better scholarship. Readers are more likely to read an article in a higher-ranked journal, so the more a competition occurs, the more likely the audience will be pointed to better stuff. Second, it helps to bring attention to better scholars. If you're not a professor yet, or you are underplaced at your institution, top journal placements can help bring attention to your work and to you. Both are useful functions, at least if you assume that journals can ID what is better scholarship.

Posted by: AnontherProf | Sep 27, 2017 2:23:16 AM

I don't think this symmetry argument works. The reason letterhead bias is bad isn't because it disadvantages authors at lower-ranked schools; it is because it undermines the social function of law reviews. Law reviews are supposed to provide a sorting and signaling mechanism, and letterhead bias dilutes the signal--I presumptuously give more weight to an article published in the Harvard Law Review because the HLR has its pick of articles and it supposedly picks what its editors think of as the "best" articles. If what the editors really do is just pick articles by Harvard faculty, then I could more easily find articles by Harvard faculty just by going on SSRN, and at that point there would be no reason for the Harvard Law Review to exist.

But expediting up--or, more deeply (and the feature of the process that is what you are really objecting to here), author preference for higher ranked law reviews over lower ones--doesn't dilute the quality of the signal or undermine the social purpose of law reviews. It is actually fundamental to their whole existence. There may be something wrong with the expedite game; but it is not that authors prefer higher ranked law reviews to lower ones. If every law review were the same, there would be no need for law reviews.

Posted by: TJ | Sep 26, 2017 10:34:40 PM

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