On Peer Reviewing

This is not a post about whether law reviews should try to move to a peer-review system, or whether law professors should publish primarily in peer-reviewed journals.  (On those issues I’m a “let a thousand flowers bloom” sort of guy, and think there’s value in having a variety of publishing outlets.)  Rather, I want here to talk a bit about the peer-reviewing process, from the reviewer’s perspective.  I have, in the last couple of years, done refereeing or reviewing for four normal peer-reviewed journals and for a top law review that has a semi-peer-review system in place.  Some parts of the experience have been good, and some less enjoyable, but for the most part I have been pleased to take part.  The various journals have differed to some degree in their procedures.  Two of them were journals published by Springer, and while there are reasons to not love Springer (such as the high prices they charge for their journals), the automated software they use is fairly convenient.  It sends out a review request, with a copy of the article to be reviewed and a note from the editor, and asks if the prospective referee is willing and able to review the article by a certain date.  It also sends reminders, and provides forms to make specific comments and recommendations, and detailed comments can be uploaded.  One journal provided a long list of questions to be answered about the paper on a word document, and did not require that additional comments be included, though I did so anyway.   I found that system more annoying, and would have been glad for an automated reminder to get in my review.  (I was on time, but only barely.)  The best experience was refereeing for the excellent on-line journal, The Philosopher’s Imprint, run by Stephen Darwall of Yale and David Velleman of NYU.  It uses a two-stage process, where a paper is sent to a referee who is asked to read it and make an initial assessment within two weeks.  At that point it make be rejected with fairly short comments, or kept for longer review period, set by the referee, but no more than six additional weeks, when detailed comments would be due.  As it turned out, I recommended rejecting the paper within the two weeks, though I still tried to write fairly detailed comments.  Refereeing for the law review was much less formal.  Unlike some, I did not find the request offensive or presumptuous, and was glad to take part.  The deadline requested was quite short, by normal refereeing standards (4 or 5 days), but as detailed comments were not requested, it was less work, too.  (I was also glad that the paper was much shorter than the ridiculous length of most law review articles.)  I did find it harder, in a way, to give what I thought would be a helpful report without writing detailed comments, so I did write up a page or two of those.  My understanding is that they would not go to the author, but only be used by the journal.  That’s unfortunate, in a way, as one of the virtues of peer-reviewing is supposed to be helping along scholarship.  I’ve always tried to make my comments useful, and I have certainly benefited from the comments I’ve received from referees.

One other significant difference between the normal peer-reviewed journals and the law review is that the law review didn’t have the option of recommending “revise and re-submit”.  This sometimes seems like a cop-out recommendation, but the large majority of papers accepted for eventual publication at peer-reviewed journals go through at least one round of revisions, leading me to believe that it’s a useful and important process, even if it does slow down publication dates.  To my mind, the worst part of the experience has been reading papers that were not very good.  I’ve recommended publication in only one out of five instances, and in some of the cases the papers were really not very good, for a variety of reasons.  When a paper is not very good, one has to spend more time on it, trying to figure out what is being said, and making sure that one understands the arguments.  In such cases I have also tried to write very detailed comments, to explain exactly what I thought was wrong, and how the paper could be improved.  As anyone who has graded seminar papers knows, it’s much less fun and harder to deal with a bad paper than a good one.  Still, the over-all experience has been a good one, and I like to think that I’ve helped contribute to scholarship in some ways by taking part.  I’d recommend serving as a peer reviewer when asked for those who are able to do so.

(Unless something unexpected pops up in the news or otherwise catches my fancy in the next week or so this will likely be the last post I’ll do here, so let me thank the whole Co-Op crew for letting me take part, and thank the readers, especially those who took the time to comment.)

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