Why Do Peer Review?

poor-review-and-peer-review(Cross-posted at Prawfs, where I’m visiting this month.)

A recent post by Steve Bainbridge raises a nice issue: how should we think about peer review? Traditional peer-edited legal journals have established procedures (JELS pays honoraria and blinds; JLS pays but doesn’t; JLEO has fantastic peer comments, etc).But in the last five years, most of the top student-edited journals have moved to some kind of peer system – and many of us are now routinely asked, after a student-led process, to review for publication That peer review is never paid, and very often professors are asked to review for journals that have never accepted them. *cough. Yale Law Journal I love and hate you. cough*  That can frustrate even non-curmudgeons.  Why do it?

  1. For institutional credit. I’m aware of no school that gives formal credit for these student-edited peer reviews. Are you? If so, what does it look like?
  2. For Law Review credit. One explanation I’ve heard for doing a review for, say, Harvard Law Review, is to motivate them to feel  that they owe you at least a rejection on your own work, instead of a magnificent silence. In my experience, there’s some truth in this: doing peer review gives you the email of an AE, and credit with that person. I routinely have succeeded at being at least read by a journal I’d just done peer review with. I haven’t yet moved from a read to an acceptance.  But I did get a personalized email from HLR once.  It mentioned that they had an unusual number of great articles that cycle, which meant that they couldn’t publish even good work like mine.  I thought that was nifty! Of course, the credit isn’t  merely transactional: being a peer reviewer means you are an “expert” in the field, which should provide your article some kind of halo effect. Of course, this feeling is a quickly depreciating asset, and never rolls over from year-to-year. Use it or lose it!
  3. For the love of the game: For those of us who think that student journals should move exclusively to double-blind review, with faculty participation is a veto, participating is a price we should gladly pay. The problem is that the system isn’t perfectly constructed. Law journals should insist that peer comments will be conveyed to authors – this makes the comments much less likely to be petty (“cite me!”) and more likely to be constructive.

Bainbridge argues against mixed peer review systems, but none of his objections strike me as particularly relevant if the process is “student-screen, peer-veto.” That is how I understand the system to work at SLR, YLJ and HLR. I don’t know about Chicago – I would’ve thought their selection involves a maximizing formula and ended with a number.

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3 Responses

  1. It might pay to look to the sciences, where peer review is by far the norm. Why do it? It’s expected of you; it’s an uncompensated, professional responsibility. “They” will review your papers; you have to return the favor. I’ve seen lower-ranked folks — PhD students, postdocs, even junior faculty members — list their reviewing service on their CVs. It is, after all (and as you note), an honor to be asked; it means someone things you’re expert in a field. Periodically, the reviewers are listed in the publication, to validate those CVs, but I think that my first point is more the norm: it’s something that scientists “should” do, so they do it.

  2. Paul Horwitz says:

    Right. As far as I’m concerned, “You do it because it’s a professional duty” is reason enough.

  3. Dave Hoffman says:

    Well, I agree, but it assumes the conclusion. If you, like Steve, don\’t believe in mixed-methods peer review, it\’s not a professional duty to participate.