Why Law Reviews Should Stop Publishing in Hard Copy

What do the Internal Revenue Bulletin, ProPublica, and the science journal PLOS-ONE have in common?

None of them publish in hard copy, and none think that hurts their perceived authority. They’re right. It’s hard to believe any judge will think less of a Revenue Ruling because – as of last week – the Bulletin is only published online.

The “death of hard copy” has become a cliché, everywhere but law reviews. Even though fewer and fewer people (and institutions) subscribe to paper law reviews, most reviews continue to churn out hard copy. And I bet that many schools spend a significant amount of money subsidizing the production of their publications (especially their secondary journals which likely have even lower subscription rates). I suspect that that many of the remaining purchasers of hard copy are themselves law schools. For instance, the Virginia Law Review has approximately 400 paid subscribers – how many of those are law school libraries?

When was the last time you picked up a bound volume of a law review? Or snail-mailed someone an old-school reprint rather than emailing a PDF? When did you last pull the actual print issue off the library shelf instead of using WestLaw, Lexis, HeinOnline, or SSRN?

It’s time for law reviews to stop publishing paper. By all means, they should continue cite-checking (a topic for another day), proofreading, and formatting their articles. But once a final draft is posted on the review’s website as a PDF, that should be the end of the ballgame. If a reader wants a hard copy, she can print it out herself.

There are two major advantages to stopping paper publication:

First, cost. Insofar as law schools are subsidizing hard copy, that’s money that could go to other, better activities, like financial aid. Law school libraries should also stop buying hard copies that no one reads. They’re throwing good money out the window.

Second, students’ time. Getting an article from finished PDF to the printed and bound stage involves quite a bit of work (at least it did several years ago when I was an articles editor – thankfully a job our managing editors had to take care of). The students aren’t learning any useful law-related skills when they working with the printer. That’s time wasted.

My guess is that, because law reviews are risk averse and have relatively short horizons, this change won’t happen until a major flagship law review announces it will no longer publish in hard copy. But when that happens (and I think it’s a matter of when, not if), there will be a very quick domino effect as other journals recognize that there is no longer a reputational hit for failing to smear ink on dead trees.

It’s time for the law reviews to recognize that they live in a PDF world; we’re just writing in it.

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13 Responses

  1. Andrew Selbst says:

    I have found symposium issues to be useful as a bound volume, simply because it’s a lot of information on one topic. When I was researching for my note, I read one almost cover to cover.

  2. A third benefit is that online-only publication can be just-in-time. There is no need to assemble a sufficient number of articles into an “issue”; instead, articles can go out as they are edited and ready. Some law reviews already do this in pushing articles to their websites; online supplements typically work this way, too. This loosens up the scheduling process, giving reviews more flexibility in how they accept, edit, and publish articles.

    Andrew’s point is a good one, and note that symposium issues are an exception to these thoughts about print-constrained scheduling. The articles arrive at once, go through the pipeline in parallel, and belong together.

  3. Lawrence Cunningham says:

    There may be another institutional imperative resistant to abandoning printed law journals. To the extent that reviews are anachronistic, as authors can simply go digital on SSRN to give researchers easy access, their value resides in imprimatur. The distinction between print and digital has been one way to sustain existing perceptions about that value. Going digital means sacrificing it.

  4. Mike Madison says:

    Our school (Pittsburgh) now publishes all of its law journals as “online journals,” plus print (in four of five cases), rather than as “print plus online access to PDFs loaded onto a website.” What that means is that each issue is published electronically as “an issue” of an electronic journal, concurrently with its print publication. (Authors are welcome to post their pieces to SSRN and elsewhere; the journals are all open access.) Each online journal has its own ISSN. The publisher of the journals is the University of Pittsburgh, and the professional staff of that publisher are employed in the University’s library. Students still select and edit the pieces.

    They — the professional librarians in the room — tell me that this arrangement aligns most effectively with the way that journal scholarship is distributed and read world-wide, which is to say via research-oriented institutions embedded in electronic networks. As an author and as a faculty advisor to a couple of these journals, I want to maximize visibility, readership, and impact. On the electronic side of things, I’ve learned at Pitt that “journal publishing,” in a digital context, is more effective on all three counts than “posting PDFs.” I am guardedly optimistic that with this digital infrastructure in place, the school will stop print publication (relatively) soon. But the decision on whether to do that is not mine to make.

  5. I agree with everything except the notion that working with a printer has no value. That’s not true. Journal editors can learn a lot about communication, agreements, deadlines, etc. by working with printers. Indeed, many will have to do so on appellate work in the future.

    I’m not saying it is the only or even the best way to learn those skills, but I would not write that time off as pure waste.

  6. Jeff Lipshaw says:

    I agree wholeheartedly. I love my stacks of unmailed reprints, but I acknowledge they are an anachronism. I just agreed to publish with the Berkeley Business Law Journal, which goes paperless.

  7. mls says:

    I am skeptical that there is a lot of value in the experience of working with a printer. I am not aware of many situations, other than Supreme Court briefs, where lawyers use printers, and even then the task of working directly with them is as likely to go to a legal assistant. Nothing against printers (I just used Wilson-Epes for a S.Ct brief and they were great), but I don’t see any particular advantage to law students in that experience.

    And I agree with getting rid of the hard copies. Your post made me realize that I feel subconsciously guilty about throwing away printed articles when they come in the mail- I would much rather just go to SSRN or store them in a file on my computer.

  8. Aaron Zelinsky says:

    I think Andrew’s point about symposium editions is a fair one, but there’s no reason those articles couldn’t be “bundled” together in an online format, say with a tag at the top of the article noting that they’re part of a symposium “edition.” Mike raises an interesting idea that is above my paygrade — I fully imagine there are better ways to release the articles than PDF in an online and paperless format. Best of luck to Pittsburgh on its paperless journey!

    Larry also makes a good point. I do think that some journals cling to print as a way of signaling quality. That’s why I think it will change rapidly once one of the big flagships does away with print. Would anyone really think less of the Virginia Law Review if it stopped putting out it’s 400 paper issues?

    And as for printers — perhaps I was too glib. Insofar as accomplishing any complex task involves similar skills (setting goals, meeting deadlines, working in a team), working with a printer helps to learn those. But the same could be said of — for example — purchasing and assemble a giant Lego fort (to be too glib again). The question is whether those are skills that the law school should be focused on providing, and whether that’s the best way to teach them. I don’t think it is.

    I agree wholeheartedly on reprints. I asked one journal for only a single reprint (for my mother) and they refused, insisting that I receive 50. So now my mom has 50 reprints (or, more accurately, had — I suspect they have gone the way of Jeff’s).

  9. Jon says:

    Without the printed edition, our subscription levels would be intermitten’.

  10. Richard Danner says:

    With their 2013 volumes, 6 of Duke’s 9 journals will be published only electronically with print-on-demand articles and issues available from our printer.

    For a survey of faculty attitudes regarding the importance of print, some folks may wish to to take a look at:

    Richard A. Danner, Kiril Kolev & Marguerite Most, Print or Perish? Authors’ Attitudes toward Electronic-Only Publication of Law Journals (July 2011)

  11. Aaron Zelinsky says:


    Thanks for the info and the link. I had not seen your piece before and it’s very interesting. My bet is that the preference you found for print (once you eliminate the more desirable journals) is a function mainly of singalling, rather than something intrinsic about print. If the HLR announced tomorrow that it woudld no longer publish in print, I suspect many journals would rapidly follow.

    Most interesting is the difference you identify between in age cohorts, suggesting that print will become increasingly less desirable as the printophiles age out.

  12. Lawrence Cunningham says:

    For an even better innovation, see the current issue of the Washington Law Review, featuring an “interactive” article (one complete with hot links to source documents presented in an accompanying file).

    It is here:


  13. Aaron Zelinsky says:

    The WLR interactive feature is pretty cool. Another indication of the decline of print, which has affirmatively less functionality than the version they’ve posted online. I can’t imagine many people reading the bound paper copy of this.