Friday, September 9, 2011

Reprints and the Audiences for Legal Scholarship

A few days ago, Lesley posted a question about article reprints.  That question echoed a recent discussion on the environmental law professors’ listserve, which started with one professor querying why law professors send each other reprints at all.  Similar debates have also played out on other blogs.

In some of these debates, the participants seem to assume or imply that reprints are sent primarily to other law professors.  If that’s so, I think we may be missing an opportunity.  And it begs larger questions about who the appropriate audiences are for our writing, and how we can best reach them.

Obviously writing for other environmental law professors has a lot of value, and that value reaches beyond purely academic realms.  I rely heavily on my colleagues work (and, often, on student work) as I prepare for teaching, particularly when I’m trying to develop a basic understanding of the controversies in an area of environmental law that I don’t know well.  Through my teaching those ideas influence my students, few of whom will ever become academics.  Most of us also maintain networks of contacts in practice, and those people often look to us as conduits for innovative ideas. 

The audiences who gain the most from reading legal scholarship may not be legal academics, however.   They may not even be lawyers.  Judges are one potential audience, of course, though I don’t agree with those who imply that the measure of legal scholarship should be the frequency with which judges who read and cite it.  Legislative aides, administrative agency staff, local government officials, and practicing lawyers all also play major roles in developing and implementing environmental law, and all may be interested in the broader perspective and (somewhat) impartial analysis that good scholarship can provide.  Yet they generally lack the time to go searching for interesting articles to read.  Similarly, environmental academics in non-legal fields deal with environmental law constantly, yet often have only a facile understanding of how it actually works.  For all of these people, environmental law articles can be really useful and helpful.

But here lies the problem, and the potential role of the reprint.  We have wonderful systems for disseminating articles to other law professors.  SmartCILP, SSRN E-Journals,  conferences, listserves, and blogs all provide important supplements to the already-powerful searching and linking capacities of Lexis and Westlaw.  We have OK systems for disseminating our work to non-academic lawyers.  They generally know how to search for writing on a particular topic, but they generally don’t have access to the notification services we academics rely on to find relevant new work.  Hence, perhaps, the reluctance of some judges and lawyers to read academic work; they have access to everything but aren’t sure where to start.  For non-lawyers, the systems are pretty bad.  Imagine trying to find relevant scholarship without access to Lexis or Westlaw (when I was a practitioner attempting to write, I tried; it was awfully hard).   Google Scholar and SSRN are making the situation better, as is the increasingly common practice of posting PDFs on law review websites and faculty profiles, but the process is still archaic and difficult.  For someone in that position, having a reprint appear in the mail could be the difference between reading legal scholarship and not reading at all.  So if we’re sending our reprints only to each other, we’re favoring the audience that probably needs those reprints the least, and missing the audiences that might get the greatest benefit.

I don’t think bombarding non-legal academics and non-academic lawyers is an ideal solution.  The bigger question for academics to ponder may be how we can better notify non-academic lawyers and non-legal academics about relevant legal work.  But sending out a few reprints is at least a step toward bringing legal scholarship to people who might appreciate receiving it and could benefit from reading it.

In the meantime, those of you who have sent me reprints, please continue to do so.  I like getting them.  There’s something irreplaceable, for me at least, about reading something on paper.

-Dave Owen

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