Articles Editors Dos and Don’ts

I promised one more post before I said goodbye. So I spent most of my time here giving my best articles editor advice to professors looking to submit their articles. And I hope that was helpful! But, let’s be real: there are plenty of problems on the law review side that need to be addressed as well. Some of the complaints folks have about law review editors are unfair — either because they don’t take into account important information from the student side of things, or because they put upon the students obligations that really ought to rest with the professors (most notably: if you want a peer-review system where third year law students aren’t reviewing your pieces, you are entirely free to start your own journals and submit to them exclusively. It is not the students’ responsibility to voluntarily cede power). But there are plenty of things — perfectly reasonable things — law reviews could do much better.

I’m assuming a “classic” law review model — student-edited, not blind, no peer review. Obviously, those are important potential areas of reform, but they’re beyond the scope of the advice I’m giving here.

(1)  Be open and honest about your policies.

A strange question that was asked of me was whether law reviews really review pieces that are submitted to them over the summer. In our case, the answer was “yes”: we say we review year-round, and actually do review year-round. For other journals, the answer is “no”: they close up for the summer, and say so on ExpressO. But it seems like there is a significant cadre of law reviews which, in effect, don’t read articles over the summer but don’t say anything to that effect on their website or ExpressO. That’s just annoying. In my view, with Skype and group internet chats there is no reason to shut down over the summer or at any other point in the year prior to filling the volume. But if you’re going to do it, make sure to tell the authors that.

Same admonition applies to policies regarding student work. Most journals simply say that they’re closed to student work. The one’s that don’t say that … are still basically closed to student work. Be upfront.

(2) Give a response … but not too soon.

Two (and a half) separate sins here. The first is not informing authors that you’ve rejected their piece. I know there is no good way to write a rejection letter. Fortunately, there is basically no bad way to write one unless you’re actually trying to offend. All we want is an answer. I’ve heard of colleagues getting a relatively late offer who, upon calling up other journals to try and expedite, are informed that their piece isn’t still under consideration. Fascinating — planning to inform the author of that fact at any time?

The same critique applies to cop-out moves like hanging on to most of your submissions for months, then sending a blast email in December saying “sorry, our volume’s full, so we won’t be able to consider your piece.” Come on — that’s insulting everyone’s intelligence if it’s false and offensive if it’s true (you’ve had it for five months, and you made sure to studiously ignore it the entire time?).

At the same time, sending a rejection within hours of receiving the piece is also a major no-no. Speaking as a former AE, I know there are times when one can, in fact, make a fair, informed decision on a piece essentially right after receiving it. You happened to be trolling the journal’s inbox, a piece catches your eye so you open it up, it turns out to be a non-starter, so you decide to cut it loose. Fine. But from an author’s vantage point, we’re reading boilerplate about “after full consideration” and rolling our eyes. Institute a mandatory three-day waiting period — it salves fragile egos and still represents a very fast turnaround (and costs you nothing).

(3) Once you accept a piece, accept it “as is”.

Every author has horror stories on this front. Hell, I’ve barely published anything and I’ve got one (on the final proof, the editors “corrected” my name to misspell it. I never saw the piece before it was published — another cardinal sin — so it went to the presses as authored by “David Shraub”. I was furious, and also more than a little perplexed at what motivated some industrious little copy editor to look at the author’s own name at the top of the piece, and think “nope”). Good editing often makes a piece better, but not all editing is good editing. And hard, unyielding “style rules” usually are examples of bad editing. Suggestions are good, forcing authors to change their entire writing structure because you (falsely) think the passive voice is invariably the handiwork of Satan is bad.

This goes triple for major substantive changes. I remember one piece that was submitted to us while I was editor, that I really liked but which we couldn’t take for various reasons unrelated to its content. The article ended up placing very well, and the author came to Chicago several months later to present it. The draft she distributed was mostly the same as the one I had seen, except it had an extra section tacked on the end that seemed a little thin and disconnected from the rest. We asked her about it, and she laughed and said “oh, the law review editors made me add that. I don’t really care about it.” No. Bad. Mortal law review sin. Don’t do that.

Again, it is perfectly acceptable to make suggestions. But if you vote to accept an article for publication, you should be willing to publish it without any non-grammatical changes. Authors mostly are willing to listen to advice and input, but editors need to respect the fact that the author is the author (and the expert).

(4) Don’t institutionalize letterhead bias.

Letterhead bias exists. Without blind review, it is probably impossible to get rid of it entirely. Even in the best case, there’s probably a subconscious slant that believes pieces by prominent professors with strong prior publication records are better than those written by the great unknown. It’s something that those of us not in such an august position have to suffer through. And fortunately, between the fact that I think this bias tends to more often act to promote merely average pieces by the famous than it is used to deep-six great articles by new folk, and the existence of at least some AEs with a redistributionist agenda, I think subconscious letterhead bias can be mostly held in check.

But some journals don’t have a subconscious preference for pieces authored by the already-prominent. For some, it’s policy. They will say to their friends or on anonymous boards (though not as a publicly pronounced policy — see #1) that if you’re not tenure-track at a top 75 school, you’re just out of luck. Usually, this is justified as a triage given the sheer volume of submissions the journal receives.

I don’t think this sort of deliberate discrimination is justifiable. Yes, journals receive a ton of submissions. But I was never in a position where I ever felt like I couldn’t give every piece that hit my inbox at least a first-look review. I’m willing to cut editors a lot of slack in terms of their ability to accurately appraise pieces — I think, with the system we have, articles editors try their best to figure out what’s good and what isn’t, and generally do a decent job of it — but I feel very strongly that if you don’t have the confidence to give each article, regardless of its authorship, a fair shot at publication, you probably should look for a different position on the masthead. It really is a matter of basic fairness.

(5) Don’t give feedback.

This will be an unpopular one with my colleagues, but I think it is a very wise rule (and, of all the policies Volume 77 of the University of Chicago Law Review passed on to Volume 78, this was the only one that they pleaded with us to keep intact). It is also notable that many of the reasons I’m opposed to substantive student feedback are also reasons why the student-edited model is inferior to peer review. As I noted, I’m gearing my advice to the “classic” journal, but I wanted to let folks know I didn’t miss the subtext.

Obviously, everyone loves getting feedback. Good feedback makes our paper better, and any feedback by someone who is (in effect) judging your piece is informative in that it gives hints on how to get it placed (or placed better) the next time around. The problem is that the already-precarious relationship between student editors and faculty authors almost definitely cannot sustain the added stress of providing substantive feedback.

First, remember which folks tend to be the most vocal in their desire for editor-feedback: those who would prefer a peer-review system and who note that one of the better aspects of such a system is that it offers such feedback. But remember the other reason they want peer review? Because peers are better evaluators than students! The substantive quality of any student feedback will be, at best, inconsistent (indeed, given dozens of law reviews and six or so editors per journal, the substantive content of the feedback will probably be quite inconsistent as well). To the extent that it is incorporated into piece, it will be done less to make the piece better and more to make it more publishable — arguably resulting in a net decrease in overall quality.

Second, part of what takes the sting out of a harsh peer review is that they’re peers. Nobody likes being judged poorly by one’s fellows, of course, but I guarantee you being judged harshly by one’s students is far worse. And that’s assuming you think they’re making a reasonable point — which much of the time you won’t.

Third, the structure of the general-interest, multiple-submission law review submissions process means that there are often non-substantive reasons why a piece isn’t taken (for example, most journals are reticent to publish more than one or two articles on the same topic per volume). Giving substantive commentary runs the risk of being misleading: authors will be tempted to “revise and resubmit”, and editors will be left in the awkward position of explaining that the piece still can’t be accepted even though the author “did exactly what you asked me to do!”

(6) Be wary of things like word limit policies.

Many law reviews have started to signal a preference for shorter (well, relatively shorter) articles. Usually, the precise wording is something like “we prefer submissions of less than 25,000 words, manuscripts of over 30,000 words will only be considered in exceptional circumstances.”

On the question of lengthy law review articles generally, I’m indifferent. I certainly think plenty of pieces are bloated and could stand to be trimmed, and take note of just how far out of whack we are with other disciplines. On the other hand, I think law articles are better thought of as short monographs (filling that academic “niche”), and so their length is less troublesome (to me anyway). I also note that, particularly for newer professors, articles that are too short (generally >16,000 words) are seen as “non-professional” and are quickly dismissed, meaning that too harsh a word cap can really circumscribe the dimensions certain professors have to play in.

But the reason I object to word limit policies is that they seem inconsistently enforced, and probably just end up as one more way for the “rich to get richer”.  It doesn’t really seem like the top journal articles are shrinking, and it does seem like the discretionary nature of the word limits is another way to ice out unknown authors in favor of their more famous fellows (whose pieces are more likely to be seen as an exceptional circumstance). This is a case of the subconscious letterhead bias more than anything else — I don’t think it is any malign intent — but it is an obvious insertion point for bias and one I think better avoided altogether. If I thought it was really important to cut down on the length of law review articles, and I thought that the limits were exerting a meaningful push in that direction, then maybe I’d consider the cost worth it. But I don’t think it is, and I don’t think they are.

* * *

And with those words, I’m out. I hope the advice I’ve given was helpful. For my part, it’s been a pleasure being here, and this past month — comprising my first as an actual professor, has been a lot of fun as well. So I feel very lucky, and very grateful, for all of these opportunities.

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8 Responses

  1. Josh Tate says:

    Great post. With regard to (2), if you decide to include the title of the article in a rejection letter, be sure you get it right. I once received an email from a law review rejecting an article within a few hours of my having submitted it. The email garbled the title of the article, despite the claim of having given it “full consideration.” I haven’t submitted to that law review again.

  2. Bridget Crawford says:

    For rejection notifications, perhaps ExpressO could allow journals to check a box indicating that a submission article is out of consideration (i.e., rejected)? Then again, many editors don’t use the built-in features of ExpressO to acknowledge receipt of an article, so asking them to use the system to send rejections (as opposed to remaining silent) may be unrealistic.

  3. The process for rejecting a piece on ExpressO takes something like three clicks of the mouse. It is not difficult. And I don’t know why folks don’t want to do it — ExpressO inboxes get pretty unruly if you don’t clear them out regularly.

  4. anon says:

    I always found it helpful when journals put my article on “hold” to indicate rejection. This allowed me to expedite without having to de-check all kinds of boxes and keep track of where I withdrew the article or had it rejected.

  5. TJ says:

    There seems a bit of tension between number 2 and number 4. The reason people get a three-second rejection is because of a policy of letter-head bias. But in No. 2, you are not saying to law reviews to not give three second rejections. You are saying to not make the three second rejection too obvious lest the unofficial policy becomes known to authors, at which point they will complain loudly about the unfairness of it all. If law reviews collectively make it harder to figure out whether letterhead rejections happen (i.e. if they follow No. 2), there will be less pressure to not do it.

    In other words, I think law professors get a better deal having our collective egos bruised by explicit three second rejections, if we thereby also receive a more accurate picture of how much letterhead bias actually occurs.

  6. MT says:

    TJ,

    Blind review (i.e. no letterheads) results in plenty of so-called “three-second” rejections as well. An article may be about a topic that is already overrepresented in a given volume, or the abstract may reveal that the article’s subject matter is not suited for a law review, or you may be able to tell obvious preemption or other problems from the abstract.

  7. TJ says:

    MT, I’m sure that happens, but I’m sure that happens also very rarely, and the vast majority of three second rejections are letterhead based. A personal anecdote: I had the experience of submitting as someone with no letterhead, where I always received numerous immediate rejections from numerous law reviews. I now have a letterhead, and never receive immediate rejections.

    And if you look at the institutional affiliation of authors published in Harvard, Yale, and Stanford, one can legitimately wonder whether their “blind” review is really blind.

  8. TJ: I don’t think it is as rare as you might expect (you’d be surprised how many articles we got that were on specific state law, or obviously a dressed-up student Comment), but your point is still solid. I think it is simply a question of courtesy. And to the extent law reviews are willing to institutionalize letterhead bias, I think the way to signal that is to be upfront about it (see #1), rather than the more indirect signal of being discourteous to insufficiently pedigreed professors.

    Few law reviews are willing to admit such deliberate bias, of course, but I don’t think law reviews should institute practices that they’re unwilling to stand behind publicly.