Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Professor So-and-So

In my short time as an academic, I’ve noticed an increasingly common practice: when law professors cite the work of other law professors in their articles, they tend to precede the person’s name with the title “professor.”  So, for example, I might write, “as Professor Blake Hudson has pointed out, many states do very little to regulate timber harvests from private land.”


I don’t think this is a good practice.  That may sound like a funny thing to say; after all, the practice is motivated by courtesy and politeness, and those are generally good things.  But I think the practice creates a distinction, and implies an unjustified hierarchy, between professors and other researchers.


Consider this scenario.  I’m writing a sentence that will cite two experts, who we’ll call John Poe and Jane Doe.  John Poe is a professor, and Jane Doe is a public-sector attorney.  The sentence might read like this:  “Jane Doe has argued X, but Professor John Doe  disagrees, explaining that…”  For at least some readers, the title will now become relevant to their assessment of the disagreement; the implication is, “well, he’s a professor, and she isn’t, so we probably ought to give greater weight to his view.”  (Of course, some people will have exactly the opposite reaction.)  But Jane Doe may well have a deeper understanding of the subject, and a lot of great research comes from people who aren't professors.  The better practice, I think, is to let the views stand on their merits, not based on the titles of their authors.

That doesn’t mean titles will never be relevant.  Sometimes the title does help readers judge the authoritativeness of an opinion.  For example, if a judge writes something about problems with the rules of evidence, it’s helpful to know that the article comes from a judge, who presumably has direct experience with the subject she describes.  But for the most part, I think we should just do what academics in other fields do: provide names, not titles.

-Dave Owen

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