A Modest Defense of Law Reviews

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9 Responses

  1. Joe Liu says:

    I suppose the choice of which structure best aggregates information depends on what kind of information you are trying to produce. If I want to know the best treatment for a cold, I might surf the internet for the conventional wisdom. If I want advice on whether to undergo a very complicated surgical procedure, I will be calling on an expert. Law reviews may do a decent job of sorting legal scholarship into broad categories, but not as good a job of distinguishing between solid and truly excellent scholarship.

    I think your final point actually underscores why people often object to the existing system. The existing system would not be problematic if nothing really hinged on placement, since, as you note, experts in the field know what is a good article regardless of where it is placed. Yet I think it’s true that, when it comes to tenure and related decisions, people often rely too much on placement as a proxy for quality.

    Finally, is SSRN an example of an even more efficient market? Everything gets published. Then people vote with their feet (or mice, as it were). I suppose there are distortions here as well (based on links to blogs, subject matter, etc.). But what if SSRN could track numbers of downloads from legal academics? Or academics within a particular discipline? Maybe the end result will be an Amazon-like rating system (“I give Sunstein 3.5 starts …”).

  2. Nate Oman says:

    Joe: Do you think that peer review would do a better job of picking the difference between the solid and the truely excellent scholarship? I can imagine that they might, but it is by no means obvious. Certainly, citation studies (which admittedly are a really really bad proxy for quality) suggest that most of what gets published in peer reviewed locales gets ignored. Certainly, I have done enough research in peer reviewed journals (philosophy & economics) to notice the tendency of some authors to publish the same article several different times, etc.

    I suppose that any time you set up a system where some marker is going to act as a proxy for something else, you will have incentives to game the system. (Writing a program to download your pieces from SSRN, etc.) Certainly SSRN aggregates information better than say posting working papers on your personal website. I doubt that it is perfect. I suspect that at the end of the day, there is no way of avoiding the need to read a paper and access its quality for oneself.

    If I am right about institutional aggregation of information, however, law profs can engage in a little less hand wringing about law reviews. Obviously, SOME hand wringing is still in order, but I think that often times the criticism fall into two traps. First, they ignore the extent to which law reviews often get it right. It is certainly not random or at least totally random. Second, they often have an unrealistically idealized picture of what the peer review process is like.

  3. Kaimi says:


    Are you by chance referring to some of the conversation taking place in this thread? http://www.theconglomerate.org/2005/11/law_school_repu.html

    Because if not, your post is awfully coincidental.

  4. Nate Oman says:

    Kaimi: The Conglomerate thread is a good discussion, but my post was actually prompted by a discussion that I had with Dan and Professor Litowitz somewhat strident attacks on law reviews and the law professoriate in general on your thread.

  5. Aaron Wright says:

    I think there is another benefit to Law Reviews, which is that it helps train law students to write legal scholarship. If you have an editorial position on a law review or comprable journal, the editing process teaches an aspiring professor many things–common structures for articles, appropriate citation conventions, etc. This doesn’t even include the note process.

    I think that these are tangible benefits that also get overlooked.

  6. Joe Liu says:

    Nate: I guess I may be referring more to review by peers than peer review. If I want to know which articles in a particular area are truly path-breaking, I would ask folks in that area whose judgment I trust. And I do think that they would do a better job making that determination than the law reviews could, even collectively.

    Now it may be that the peer review *process* has defects in it that undercut the benefit of expertise. If the folks doing the peer review are not themselves good judges of quality, if the process is politicized, or if the people don’t make the effort, that’s problematic. So I guess I don’t really know enough about the peer review process, as it is actually implemented, to make a comparative judgment. (I may be guilty of idealizing the process).

    But more generally, I guess I’m a bit more skeptical that the collective “wisdom of the law review crowd” is always enough to overcome the substantial advantages of experts when trying to determine which works are truly excellent. While it’s true that the law review system as a whole may aggregate a lot of information, I think we still need to look critically at the quality of that information and compare it to the information available to a smaller group of experts.

    That being said, I agree with your general point that the critique of law reviews can be overstated. I’m actually relatively content with the existing system, since pretty much everything gets published and, as you say, experts in a particular area know what’s good regardless of where it’s published.

  7. Aaron — were you an editor at Cardozo? Were you my editor? If so, what a small world! If not — gosh there are a lot of Aaron Wrights in the world.

  8. History of the Book

    Folks here at concurringopinions have been talking a lot about books recently–Nate Oman’s had posts on the appeal of law books (particularly old ones) and law reviews and Dan Solove’s posted about the open library. I find student-edited law…

  9. History of the Book

    Folks here at concurringopinions have been talking a lot about books recently–Nate Oman’s had posts on the appeal of law books (particularly old ones) and law reviews and Dan Solove’s posted about the open library. I find student-edited law…