Comparative journal submission experiences

I’d like to write about my experiences of submitting to American law reviews, and to compare that to my experiences with submitting to law journals elsewhere. In posting about this, I hope that I am not flogging a dead horse. Also, as a relatively junior academic, I don’t claim to have a lot of experience with submitting law journals in any jurisdiction.

There are several major differences between submitting an article to a US law review, and (for want of a better term) a UK/Commonwealth law journal. The first, the relevant word limit, really kicks in at the time of conceiving the article. The rule of thumb for length outside the US is between 8,000-12,000 words all up (I swear just the introductions of some American law review articles I have read over the years would eat up about half of this). Obviously, the higher word limit for US outlets gives the author considerably greater lattitude. Whether this makes for better scholarship, I’ll leave for persons wiser than I to decide.

Second, UK/Commonwealth law journals (at least the ones that I am aware of) work on the basis of single, exclusive submission and blind peer review. One typically attaches the article in a short email to the editor(s) and then waits. There appear to be essentially three possible responses: “no”, “perhaps, if you revise”, and “yes (perhaps with some minor changes)”. In any case, there will usually be substantive comments from reviewer(s) and editor(s) who will themselves be law professors. In my experience, and in the experience of colleagues, it’s quite common, after a journal that has rejected one’s article, to get comments that suggest one’s work has some pretty major flaws, but for the next journal to think that one’s article is the greatest thing since sliced bread.

This is of course to be contrasted with the US system – usually with multiple submissions to student-run law reviews – that I assume most readers of this blog are quite familiar with. It was rather strange the first time I submitted to multiple law journals – I felt like a kid with my hand in the cookie jar (or is that cookie jars?). That was until of course the barrage of form-rejection emails started rolling in. I quipped to some colleagues that I’d never had one article rejected so many times. (And incidentally, I would certainly agree with Lawrence Cunningham that rejection certainly beats non-response.)

Once one reaches the post-acceptance editing stage, my experience is that the UK/Commonwealth journals just tell you what changes they would like made, and one is then expected to go and do it. A submission to a US outlet on the other hand comes back marked up with all kinds of suggestions in track changes: all verbs in active voice, more footnotes,  and  more footnotes. Of all the annoying things about American law reviews described by Dan Solove, the one that stands out to my foreign eyes is the (over)-referencing required. Compare this to the UK/Commonwealth model, where the practice of excessive footnoting, particularly the use of footnotes to virtually write a series of separate mini-articles, is frowned upon, and in some cases actively discouraged.

I don’t want to be seen as bagging the American model and extolling the virtues of the UK/Commonwealth model. They’re just different. In my experience, one is likely to get more helpful substantive feedback with the latter, although at the same time it can be at times discouraging. One is likely to get a speedier acceptance with the former – I’ve heard stories of some UK/Commonwealth journals taking six months to decide. That’s a long time to wait in a system that allows only single submission.

Finally, I’ve often wondered about the fact of being a foreigner when submitting to a US law review. Does one operate at a disadvantage? If so, is that disadvantage distinct from simply non-recognition of name and institution?

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3 Responses

  1. Greg McNeal says:

    John,

    Thanks for these posts, they’re great. Will your school grant you tenure credit for articles published in non-peer reviewed American law journals?

    • John Ip says:

      Hi Greg – I think the answer here is yes, because the term we use is “quality assured” or “refereed” – and the US system is taken as fulfilling that. Also, the granting of the equivalent of tenure is somewhat more informal than I understand the US system to be. I think a publication in the main law review of a name US law school would be considered a major achievement. Whether that would be more of an achievement than placement in one of the top UK journals is open to question. That is what makes the Australian journal rankings I posted about earlier such an interesting but difficult exercise.

  2. I’m an American-born legal scholar living in Canada, and I publish about half my articles in U.S. journals and the other half in Canadian (peer-reviewed) journals. I’ve come to conclude that I like the peer-review process in theory (one can get useful feedback and it fulfills a gatekeeping function), but that in practice I hate the lengthy delays and the tendency of some reviewers to talk about the article they would *like* to see, which is usually twice as long, half as focussed, and requiring a year’s additional research compared to the article actually in front of them. Still, I publish in Canada because there are a lot of schools where peer-reviewed publications are given far more weight than non-peer reviewed publications.