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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

In Defense of Student-Edited Journals

Meredith Miller's post from yesterday touched on a topic that most law professors have considered at some point or other.  For years, there has been a movement to replace student-edited law reviews with a more professional model.  Judge Posner threw his support behind an operation called PRSM -- the Peer Reviewed Scholarship Marketplace.  But the idea has not caught on (judging by the stagnating PRSM membership).  In my view, it is a fine thing to have different models out there, so it is fine with me that some student-edited journals are experimenting with peer review (and I hear anecdotally that many student-edited journals have been doing so informally all along).  But my main point here is to stress how we all benefit from student-edited journals, and law professors should stop griping and realize how lucky they are to have the current arrangement.  

I have written on this subject before here, emphasizing the benefits students derive from their work on law journals.  Here is the heart of my argument from that previous post:

 Some of the best training that happens at law schools happens at law reviews.  I came to law school with ten years of scholarly experience under my belt, because I had written a doctoral dissertation, published historical scholarship and taught before making the jump to law school.  Still, my skills as a researcher skyrocketed in my third year as a law student when I was responsible for overseeing a team of cite and substance editors on a number of review essays that we published in our Review of Law and Social Change.  The evidentiary standards for legal scholarship are far more exacting than they are in the humanities and the non-quantitative social sciences.  No claim can be made without authority.  As a result, I became a far more intrepid researcher, and I unlearned intellectual habits acceptable to my former field of study and adopted intellectual habits essential to successful lawyering.  

In this post, I would like to address some of the advantages of student-edited journals from the author's perspective.  The main advantages of student-edited journals is that they are plentiful and rely on free labor.  Since as I explained above, the labor is a valuable component of legal education, I don't feel too badly for the students who are not paid for their editorial work.  But their efforts are responsible for raising the level of legal scholarship well above that of other humanities and social sciences.  

Having more journals to publish in is good.  Allow these adorable kids to explain:


You see, it's not complicated.

When I was a historian, I submitted articles for peer review.  I waited 3-6 months for readers' reports.  Sometimes the readers' reports were positive, and my article got published without further editing beyond typesetting.  Other times I was told to revise and re-submit.  In general, I would say that the suggested revisions were recommendations that I recast my own research to satisfy the reviewer, and I was not always convinced that doing so would enhance the quality of the piece.  But I would do my best to revise, and there were times when my attempts to satisfy the reviewer were unsuccessful.  I could move on to the next journal, but I don't think I ever did.  I published in a specialized field, and there were usually only a couple of journals where it made sense for me to publish.  The universe of qualified reviewers was also limited.  Two of my historical writings, to which I devoted months of work were never published, and one of them should have been.  

Without a doubt, legal scholars benefit from being able to submit simultaneously to scores of publications.  If none of those publications bite, we wait six months for the next round and try our luck with a fresh crop of editors who may not have the benefit of a meaningful institutional memory.  At some point, worthwhile scholarship finds its way into print, and as long as the publication is included on a database, and most journals are, students, attorneys, and scholars can find it regardless of the prestige of the publication.  

Okay, so what is the downside?

One potential downside is that a lot of useless nonesense gets published.  I would be very interested to see evidence that peer review prevents the publication of useless nonesense.  People bandy about the statistic that 40% of law review articles are never cited.  Okay, is a higher percentage of peer reviewed material cited?  In any case, as I wrote in another post:

As for scholarship itself, Brian Leiter was here a few weeks ago to deliver our annual Seegers Lecture on Jurisprudence.  In response to a question about the value of scholarship, he said something very close to my view.  Most of what gets published is a dead end.  But a certain percentage of it is very valuable, and there is no way of telling ex ante which scholarship is going to move the ball in a meaningful way.  That's why we need lots of people doing their best to move the ball and why we need to continue to support faculty scholarship. 

The other downside is that students are incompetent as editors not only in selection but also in the way they deal with the text.  This, I say, is nonsense.  Peer review may be more rigorous but peer editing clearly is not.  Whenever I have submitted essays for peer review, the final product is almost identical to the original, except for formatting and the repair of the odd typo.  Student editors work hard to improve the quality and clarity of the writing, and they also find authority where it is lacking.  They make us seem much more lucid, knowledgeable and careful than we really are -- or than we are when we first submit our offerings up for publication.  

The last time I published in a peer-review, peer-edited journal, my piece was: 1) accepted, 2) rejected following a coup on the editorial board, and 3) re-accepted after the coup unraveled.  The re-acceptance was conditional on revisions.  The readers' reports came to me nearly two years after the original submission, but I received many vague missives from the journal suggesting that I had very little time to make the necessary changes or the journal would pass on publication.  I made the requisite changes (which were idiotic and necessitated a new research project) and re-submitted.  For months, I heard nothing.  My inquiries recieved no response until I received the page proofs.  The page proofs corresponded to my original draft.  That's right, the "professional editors" who insisted that I revise my article were then prepared to publish my article without the revisions.  Publication followed some months later, about two years after the article was first accepted for publication.  I know we all have horror stories about student editors, but could they really have done much worse than that?

I have been storing these thoughts up for a while, hoping that I would one day have the time to publish them in a student-edited law journal.  For now, a blog post will have to do.


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