Making an Impact as a Law Journal Editor

How can student editors efficiently improve their journal’s reputation? The problem is a hard one, as standard measures of journal rank (see here and click on 2005 Rank, JNLS tab) are correlated with overall school US News ranking, itself a sticky number. However, the Washington and Lee ranking methodology offers other options, including the increasingly popular IMPACT and IMMEDIACY variables. In this entry, I’m going to explore some ways that journal editors might be able to increase their scores on these factors, and (in a virtuous cycle) the number and quality of submissions. In no way should this post be seen as an endorsement of the current system. Indeed, Joseph Slater’s recent critique is quite interesting. This is more of a user’s guide to the devil we’ve got.


1. Convince High-Profile Authors to Write Articles: High-profile authors are, by definition, cited more often. See Balkin & Levinson, How to Win Cites and Influence People. It is also conceivable that HP folks produce better work than LP folks (to know for sure, we’d have to have an agreement about what better work is. And, as Frank Pasquale has pointed out, we don’t). But, for believers in the HP strategy, there are a few variants:

  • Symposium Issues
  • Invite authors to submit book reviews or essays on substantive topics
  • Invite tributes to famous judges

Of these methods, the best is the second. Symposiums may not always get authors’ full attention, in part because of collective action/collective benefit problems. Tributes, I think, are unlikely to be cited heavily, if at all. But even the second method has problems, as discussed below.

2. Turn Straw Into Gold: This is an editing strategy. Editors can increase the citability of pieces by making them easier to read. How? First, as many have noted, editors should back away from footnote-fetishization. Footnote-laden sentences are hard to read; hard to read sentences are easy to ignore. Second, editors should push authors to select titles that clearly explain the article’s purposes, and should help authors to write succinct abstracts for every piece.

3. Promotion: Some journals have begun to push authors to put up articles onto SSRN. There is no reason for the journals’ marketing to stop there. Journals should absorb more of the cost of reprints for authors who either are not affiliated with a law school, or whose law school does not pay for reprints. Journals also should aggressively promote (via email or fliers) journal contents to practitioners and judges, who may be unlikely to be reached by academic reprint mailings.

4. Gaming the System?: Reading W&L’s ranking methodology page, some obvious strategies are currently available. Impact factor is currently dependant on citations per article, ans is “biased against journals that publish a larger number of shorter articles, such as book reviews.” Thus, Strategy 1(b) above is in tension with increasing impact scores in the short run. It is better (at least for IMPACT purposes) to have one article cited 20 times than two articles cited 15 times apiece. IMPACT rankings can be increased if a journal publishes a long article that is cited by multiple sources – the model I have in mind is Georgetown’s annual criminal law summary, or a state counterpart. Because courts cite such summaries more often than they do “theory” articles, the IMMEDIACY factor would also likely be affected. As the W&L methodology makes clear, neither factor is particularly robust – they can be moved with one or two strong articles (i.e., they do not appear to control for outliers).

Thus, a strategy might be to recruit students to collaborate to write longer, doctrinal, judge and practitioner friendly, pieces. Journals often do this on an annual basis, but why not have summaries of various areas of law in every issue? Or to be more provocative, journals might consider replacing the case note and comment system entirely with a system of mini-treatises. Such a change would have the secondary effect of making law reviews more relevant to law practice. And a tertiary effect of rescuing rankings from charges that they are always pernicious.

The comment thread is open for other ideas.

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7 Responses

  1. Matt says:

    It’s worth noting, I think, that the “invitation” approach is used in many other fields as well, (or at least in philosophy) especially by newer journals that don’t yet have established readership- they will often invite well-known authors to publish articles (often ones they know the person in question to have around- perhaps because of conferenes and the like) in the journal, almost always without the delays of any real blind peer review. Whether this is a great idea over all or not I can’t say, but it’s not that uncommon among philosophy journals seeking to improve their visability.

  2. Many people critique law reviews for focusing on fancy letterhead and big names. Blind review is advocated for ensuring that articles are selected on quality. But if the goal is reputation rank, and reputation is determined in such a problematic way, then this will cut against blind review and suggest that the students who are looking for fancy letterhead are right.

    The problem is in looking at citation counts as a metric of reputation. Getting lots of cites does not mean that a particular article is any good.

    Regarding practitioner and judge use of articles, one of the problems is that judges and practitioners have seemingly written off law review articles. But perhaps this isn’t the fault of law review articles, as there are quite a few that have a lot of relevance for judges and practitioners. It is just that they aren’t really being read by judges and practitioners anymore, who sometimes just dismiss law reviews with the view that no articles will be useful. Maybe the solution is finding a way to get judges and practitioners to begin reading law review articles again. And when they say, “write more articles for practitioners,” I think that they are not really reading what’s out there, as there are tons of articles with relevance for judges and practitioners. It strikes me as an easy excuse just not to read articles.

    I don’t know what the solution is, but I sure hope it isn’t putting too much attention on citation counts, which are highly imperfect as a metric of reputation.

  3. Dave Hoffman says:

    Dan, I had thought that the point of the post is that the W&L citation methodology does not necessarily suggest that fancy-letterhead is a dominant solution.

    On the empirical question of whether judges and practitioners have, in fact, written off law review articles, I’ve some doubts as to the ground truth of the story we hear. I do think that mini-treatises by law students would be a more productive use of time than notes or comments, although the reputational benefits accruing to students would be more diffuse.

  4. David Zaring says:

    I’m in agreement on the specialized student idea. Harvard’s recent developments and Georgetown’s crim procedure issues get cited lots. Law reviews should probably also require SSRN publication – and BEPress as well.

    Letterhead might also move citations, though, yikes, it might calcify scholarship a bit if all journals started focusing on letterhead instead of the substance of the articles.

    But note that an easy way to build cites would be to exclusively run con law and critical legal studies articles. Focusing on citations alone, as others have observed, would spell problems for tax, t&e, legal history, and commercial scholarship….which puts student editors who want a mix of stuff in law reviews in a difficult posittion.

  5. David Zaring says:

    Oops, I mean “position.” Cursed spelling.

  6. Seth R. says:

    Nice suggestions, but they don’t seem relevant for any journals that lack aspirations or hope to compete with the big boys.

    What about a third-tier law review that, let’s be honest, is never going to be mentioned in the same sentence as UCLA, Harvard, Duke, etc? For these schools, it doesn’t matter what you do, your general-interest law review will be largely ignored. Even if you manage to attract a heavy-hitter, it’s likely to be a flash-in-the-pan that does not translate into steady high scholarship.

    It seems to me that such law reviews have two choices:

    a) convert the journal into a specialty journal

    b) limit the journal largely to issues of local interest

    In the case of b, you’re still unlikely to get local lawyers to read it. Law review isn’t the sort of place they turn to for information. This is probably partly due to the unavoidable time-lag in law review articles (mentioned in a previous thread) and the stuffy academic tone of the articles.

    The specialty route might have better success. But you need to choose a specialty that isn’t already dominated by plenty of prestigious competitors. My own law review used to be a specialty journal and regularly attracted the heavy-hitters in the field despite being a third-tier school. We used to get cited all the time.

    Then the law review switched to a general law publication a few years ago. It was like someone pulled the switch. Quality submissions simply dried up in the school’s previous specialty. The journal vanished from the face of the planet for most big-name professors. The new law review incarnation is rarely cited to.

    You can draw your own conclusions from that.

  7. Greg says:

    What about giving authors good editing experiences (i.e., the right amount of communication and quality editing)? Is any long-term goodwill created despite the yearly turnover in editors? When a professor is deciding between offers from competing law reviews, what’s the main factor that makes the difference?

    Obviously, focusing on ‘big names’ for solicitations makes sense. Relying on letterheads for general articles selection is terrible – some of the best stuff is written by up-and-comers. As a former AE, I really hate that perception, regardless of its truth for some editors.