Dealing with Law Review Rejections

A RejectionAs this fall’s law review submission season draws to a close, it is likely that many worthy pieces will go unselected for publication or be selected by less prestigious journals or with longer time lags than sought. Affected authors face some choices.

Fortunately, the practice allowing for concurrent submissions to student editors in recognized seasons makes the process less difficult compared to fields reliant on peer-reviewed journals, requiring exclusive submissions without identifiable seasons.

For instance, in mathematics, a new journal, Rejecta Mathematica, dedicates itself to publishing only articles previously rejected by a peer-review journal. This suggests considerable frustration with that system (along with other features Dave Hoffman recently blogged about here).

For legal scholarship, such a Rejecta Lex Rev. does not seem necessary or feasible. True, some pieces are accepted for publication without receiving a single rejection, but the vast majority attract at least one rejection, and many are rejected by dozens or scores of journals. Still, legal scholars striking out or low any season face some issues.

Those receiving no offers must consider whether mass rejection is a substantive signal about a paper’s readiness for publication. If so, a rewrite is in order, perhaps an extensive one. Authors can spend coming months revising the paper, in preparation for submission in next spring’s season.

In addition, authors may reevaluate whether they targeted the requisite number and style of journals. Recalibrating the submission plan, perhaps to include more specialty journals for certain subjects, may be indicated, for spring.

Other authors may attribute mass rejections in the fall to relative scarcity of space then compared to spring. Books are largely unslated in the spring, but by fall, far fewer spaces remain to be slated.  Quality may not be the problem.

It may difficult to determine which inference to make from receiving no offers. For help, authors not having done so might post the piece on the Legal Scholarship Network of the Social Science Research Network (SSRN). This can create interest in a piece, perhaps even blog coverage, or unsolicited private comments from other scholars. The SSRN system, by tracking numbers of views and downloads, can also suggest the paper’s appeal in its current form.

If an author is correct that a paper was ready, despite no takers, revisions can be more modest, even nothing more than changing the title. After all, aside from having more capacity next spring, editorial boards will differ from this fall’s, giving papers a fresh chance of selection. If a paper was unready, it can be revised, and the revised version posted to SSRN and the prior one removed.

For those receiving disappointing offers, the issues are more complex. As a matter of principle, it seems responsible to accept an offer from any journal to which an author submitted a piece, the practice I prefer, normatively.

On the other hand, it may be widespread strategy to submit to more journals than one would actually publish in, to exploit some offers solely for the purpose of justifying expedited review requests to fancier journals the author is interested in. Authors following that strategy may be inclined to decline disappointing offers. They may take the offer(s), though disappointing, into calibrating their revision plans and submission strategy for next spring.

Less common, and less normatively freighted, are offers that disappoint because of timing, rather than prestige. Some offers this season may result in publication in print as early as January, while others may not print until August 2010. For some pieces or authors, timeliness may matter greatly, and authors must wrestle with the resulting trade off.   Waiting until spring to resubmit does not resolve the problem.  But these authors should also consider SSRN, functionally publishing the paper, and accepting the offer with a placement citation.

My several references to SSRN suggest another point about the law review submission and publication process. Papers posted to SSRN are read, appreciated and cited in ongoing scholarship, even when lacking placement in a print journal. Legal scholars are likely to become increasingly comfortable with this reference.

It is possible that papers posted solely on SSRN will achieve greater influence than those published even in the fanciest traditional print journals. A tipping point may appear in the future when such results gradually give SSRN an equal, and ultimately greater, footing. Then, mass rejections won’t even be an issue, and submissions to journals become anachronistic.  No Rejecta Lex Rev. ever needed.

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2 Responses

  1. Deven says:

    Larry,

    Thanks for yet another instructive post about the law review game.

    Question: Do you think that the lack of a major law review accepting a paper will have an impact on tenure? The idea of private publishing and citation will have to overcome the bias for published by another proxy for quality. In addition, as you note an author can alter a piece or withdraw it which seems to create an inherent instability for citation. That instability would undercut the power of SSRN or other avenues to be a proxy (assuming that citation will play a larger role as a proxy for evaluating quality in a non-law review world).

    In other words, I love the idea of papers living on and having power outside the vagaries of law review publishing but I wonder what the new world will look like.

  2. Lawrence Cunningham says:

    Deven,

    Thanks for your kind and thoughtful comment.

    Today, external tenure letters are the most important information concerning scholarship in any tenure file, followed by internal appraisals from colleagues in the field. Journal prestige can matter, but is rarely decisive, and citation counts provide a more reliable, though imperfect, proxy for quality, and a valuable measure of influence.

    In a world less reliant on formal journals for dissemination of knowledge, the prevailing quality proxy of journal prestige would diminish, and even greater weight placed on substantive tenure letters, ultimately a small adjustment, and probably desirable. Citation count utility should not change.

    For SSRN to achieve the status I imagine, improvements may be needed, especially to address your point about permanence. It would have to distinguish between preliminary and final versions, done somewhat now, and assure permanency of final versions, not in place now.

    The vital feature of scholarship is that it be disseminated for use by others, not kept in a drawer. Whether published in print after student editing or on-line without that, readers can evaluate substance. In a post-journal world, substantive merit may matter more than it can now.