Ranking law journals: a view from abroad

Let me offer an Antipodean perspective on the vexed issue of the ranking of law journals, and how this might affect scholarly behaviour. Legal scholars in New Zealand are to some extent pulled in different directions. There is a perceived obligation to service the New Zealand market by writing about legal issues of relevance to New Zealand lawyers. At the same time, publishing in international journals is generally considered to be more prestigious, with the placement of an article in an esteemed journal from the United Kingdom (such as the Law Quarterly Review) traditionally being considered ideal. Placement of articles in the United States, to my knowledge, has been rare.

Writing as I do in the area of comparative counterterrorism law, I have dipped my toes in the somewhat strange – at least to my eyes – world of American law reviews (more on that later). But might I be better off trying to place articles in UK or Australian journals? Is it possible to compare the quality of law journals across different jurisdictions? The Australian Research Council (ARC) has attempted just this rather imposing task. Predictably, the release of the draft rankings last year sparked controversy. As detailed in this story, well regarded Australian law journals such as the Sydney Law Journal and Melbourne University Law Review received B grades. Top UK Journals, such as the Modern Law Review and the Oxford Journal of Legal Studies likewise received B’s. The Cambridge Law Journal and Criminal Law Review got only C’s. What journals occupied the hallowed stratosphere of the top grade, A*? American law journals such as the Harvard Law Review, Yale Law Journal and Connecticut Law Review.

While the grading exercise was of course conducted according to certain criteria, one has to be a little suspicious of the outcome, in the same way that one would doubt the result of a statistical analysis of NBA shooting guards that resulted in Michael Jordan being the 35th best ever. In what seem to be an updated list of grades, something approaching normal service has resumed: Harvard and Yale remain the same, but the Connecticut Law Review has been downgraded to a B; all the top UK journals mentioned earlier are now A* publications. That said, one can still look through the list and engage in the following exercise: “I can’t believe that [fill-in-the-blank] journal received a [fill-in-the-blank] grade!”

As far as a non-Australian academic is concerned, the response might simply be, “So what?” After all, Australia is a whole other country (sometimes referred to in New Zealand as “the West Island”). But I think the ARC rankings have an effect merely by existing. Which UK journal outside of the usual suspects should I submit an article to? Or should I submit to a second tier American journal? I probably would consult the ARC rankings. Similarly, when a promotion or hiring committee is wanting to get a quick snapshot of the quality of a scholar’s output, it’s not hard to imagine the ARC rankings being consulted in that situation either.

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3 Responses

  1. Daniel Solove says:

    Interesting list and rankings. I wasn’t aware of this, and it’s fascinating to learn how Australians view US law review reputations.

    Among US law reviews, I’d say the list would match what most legal academics in the US would think about 75-80% of the time, but there are some really odd anomalies in the list. Moreover, the gradation scale of A* through C is probably not stratified enough.

  2. Agreed, without knowing the full criteria being judged it is hard to acknowledge or criticise the grades.

    I also agree with the previous comment that grading A through to C doesn’t give a lot of room for scope.

    There may be use for a grading system but I think there is much work to be done before it is accepted as authoritative.

  3. Julie Clarke says:

    The ARC rankings are a disgrace. The majority of A+ and A journals are international (are they encouraging us to avoid consideration of Australian domestic legal policy issues in favour of assessing issues with foreign law and policy?)and generalist journals.

    Some disciplines fair better than others for no obvious reasons. Professional journals are generally downgraded to B and C with the result that if you want your research to reach those with the power to influence in your field (ie, if you want to have a genuine social impact) then you really should be publishing in a B or C-ranked journal (the C’s contain very highly regarded professional journals as well as some dodgy newsletters) but if you want to keep your job or stand a chance at promotion you’re better off publishing in a generalist student-run journal university journal unlikely to be read by your peers in your field.

    On top of all that some journals simply aren’t ranked at all – new journals and international discipline specific journals that the creators of the list somehow managed to miss, simply gain you no credit at all.

    And the bar keeps changing – there have already been a couple of different list and publications produced before any ranking system existed are being retrospectively upgraded or (more commonly) downgraded – academics widely considered skilled and active researchers are in some cases being re-classified as ‘research inactive’ because publications they produced prior to the existence of the journal ranking system have now been classified as ‘C’ and effectively do not count at all.

    We can only hope that enough institutions fight back to get the issue on the political agenda in Australia – the current system will re-focus research offshore (to the detriment of Australian domestic legal issues), cause massive delays for publication in A and B ranked journals as more academics fight to publish there and will see the utter collapse of many (currently valuable) professional journals due to poor classification. Drastic change is required.