The Unraveling of the Market for Law Review Submissions

book21a.jpgProfessors, start your engines: it is time for the spring rush of law review papers. For those of you who are not law professors, aspiring professors, or student editors, you will be unfamiliar with the spectacle of thousands of professors submiting articles to dozens and sometimes hundreds of journals simultaneously, and, having received offers, attempting to expedite “up the ladder” under short time deadlines. Professors’ goals in this process are varied: maximizing characteristic X of the journal for citation/tenure/lateral movement purposes; maximizing quality of editing required (or minimizing it, depending on mood); obtaining “lead article” status; minimizing time to publication; selecting for generous copyright permissions; etc. Editors and journals simultaneously are competing to get the “best” articles, judged by a variety of measures (author individual prestige/author’s institutional prestige/expected citation by journals or important courts); beating a competing journal for quality work; making a statement on an issue of public importance; etc.

In any event, this is all old news. What is clearly new is that the time for submitting law review articles is creeping backwards. Just ten years ago, my colleagues tell me, late March was the beginning of the cycle and articles were routinely submitted and accepted in May. Now, as Kaimi’s post has highlighted, late February is the beginning of the cycle and many journals will be filled (at least for this round) by late March. Moreover, anecdotally, journals are increasingly “exploding” offers, trying to reduce competition through segmenting the market; and moving up board transitions to before Spring Break.

So what’s up? It seems to me [and, no, I can’t seem to find someone else who has said this although it isn’t earth-shattering] that we are experiencing what Alvin Roth called the “unraveling” of a sorting market. Classic examples of unraveling occur in the labor context – the judicial law clerk market is the paradimatic case – where the time the market begins to operate slowly is pushed back in time as the relevant actors try to get a first-mover advantage. As a result of this market failure, relevant information is not disseminated, and sub-optimal decisions are made.

In our law review example, similarly, the moving back of decisions has multiple pernicious effects. Authors may not be able to get any sense at all of the “market value” of their article (loosely reflected, the myth goes, by multiple offers at a variety of journals). Conversely, journals feeling pressure to move quickly will increasingly resort to proxies for quality like letterhead, prior publication, and the eminences listed in the article’s first footnote (which tell you who an author’s friends and professional contacts are).

Roth posited four stages of such markets:

Stage 1 begins when . . . the relatively few transactions [in the market] are made without overt timing problems. By the middle of stage 1 . . . some appointments are being made rather early, with some participants finding that they don’t have as wide a range of choices as they would like–students have to decide whether to accept early job offers or take a chance and wait for better jobs, and some employers find that not all of the students they are interested in are available by the time they get around to making offers. The trade journals start to be full of exhortations urging employers to wait until the traditional time to make offers, or at least not to make them any earlier next year than this year. Towards the end of stage 1, the rate of unraveling accelerates, until sometimes quite suddenly offers are being made so early that there are serious difficulties distinguishing among the candidates. There is no uniform time for offers to be made nor is there a customary duration for them to be left open, so participants find themselves facing unnaturally thin markets, and on both sides of the market a variety of strategic behaviors emerge, many of which are regarded as unethical practices. Various organizations concerned with the market may have proposed guidelines intended to regulate it, without notable success. As stage 1 ends, influential market participants are engaged in a vigorous debate about what can and should be done.

(Roth & Xing 1994, p. 996). By my reading, we’re in the middle of a stage 1 market. (Taking blogs for “trade journals,” check out Christine Hurt’s posts flagging the issue and exhorting others not to play the expedite game).

For the curious, Stage 2 markets have “institutionalized regulations” which govern the earliest that offers can be made; stage 3 markets have institutional procedures that organize transactions; and stage 4 markets have some unraveling preceding the centralized clearinghouse. It is not clear to me – as I’m not really as familiar with Roth’s work as I ought to be – whether he sees these stages as natural, inevitable, steps, or whether they are a mere typology.

In a possible further series of posts, I will hope to (1) explore empirical evidence that this is in fact an unraveling market problem (as opposed to anecdote, to the extent possible); (2) question whether Expresso and electronic submission generally will make the problem worse or better; and (3) mull over some modest reform proposals. To be clear, I’m a very strong supporter of student run journals, notwithstanding the usual critiques. I’m worried that the current process gives ammunition to folks who think that the entire process is irrational at best and totally random at worst. Finally, I wonder if we can come up for a story as to why more information about this particular market isn’t easily available – i.e., which journals are full; when do they want submissions by; what kind of articles have they already accepted (this is more relevant in the Fall cycle); what are they doing to discourage submission; etc.

Oh, and lest I forget, here is a shameless plug for my current contribution to this unraveling problem.

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6 Responses

  1. m says:

    I think this post is making a lot (very) old news. Some law reviews have moved their board transitions before spring break so that the new board has time to settle in before exams. That has more to do with changes in the academic calender than anything else.

    But even if there is some backward “creep” going on here, so what? It has no bearing whatsoever on the ability of boards to make decisions about quality. The use of proxies is a function of lack of expertise and sheer quantity of submissions (over time). And those conditions have existed for many years and will continue to exist unless radical changes are made in legal publishing. The only plausible way to improve quality is a single-submission policy, which would require a shift to faculty peer review–which is clearly not on the horizon.

  2. Sweaters Etc. says:

    Is there room in the “unraveling” model for posts like this one, which is read by some-perhaps-many editors, as an accelerator? Reminds me of an old Weezer song . . .

    Also, does it count as a model if it just describes what happens? What characteristics enable one to predict such a phenomenon, and how might it be addressed — not to say “solved”?

  3. Frank says:

    This is an extraordinarily smart analysis of the problem.

    But I fear you may be inadvertently encouraging it by referring to a “market value” of papers. Such economistic rhetoric presumes a commensurating metric along which all scholarship can be ranked. I think that, not only does such a metric fail to exist, presuming it does so only reinforces the kind of “rich get richer” phenomenon you criticize in the post.

    Here’s a good commentary by Bob Kuttner on the underlying problem of rankings:

  4. Anthony says:

    I just got an email from the Utah Law Review saying that they’re not evaluating submissions until May 1; I also remember reading a blog post a few days ago about how Utah Law Review’s ranking (by citation count) is significantly lower than one would expect given its U.S. News ranking.

    I wonder if a lot of the difference in citations could be attributed to turnover dates… after all, if Utah LRev doesn’t evaluate submissions until May 1 every year, one would expect it to miss out on a lot of well regarded and highly cited articles because those authors would have submitted during the Feb/March window and accepted offers before Utah even began accepting submissions. Might be interesting to study this further.

  5. Preston says:

    From the Utah Law Review: Hi. I am the Editor-in-Chief for the Utah Law Review. In response to Anthony’s post, the Law Review is accepting submissions beginning on March 15. The reason for the temporary (past and ongoing) moratorium on acceptance of articles is due to all of our editions for the current year being filled earlier in the year, and not because of an ongoing and late beginning acceptance date. I apologize for any inconvenience and/or confusion.

  6. Dave Hoffman says:

    Preston. Thanks for commenting here and for clearing up the confusion. Frank, I tend to agree with you that that discussions of rankings tends to reinforce them (“Sweathers Etc.” seems to make a similar point). Anthony, I doubt the value of the ranking-by-citation indicator, especially outside of a narrow band where there is a great deal of data, because a few well-cited articles can really turn the results quickly.