Monday, July 13, 2015

The Hardest Part of Being an Academic: Knowing When to Shut Up

Hi, my name is Steve, and I'm an academic.

I'm paid to express my opinions. The more I publish, the  greater the rewards: tenure, promotion, raises, summer research grants, chaired professorships, conference invitations.

My situation isn't unique. The reward structure is the same at most law schools and in the rest of higher education. The more you write, the more you get.

I once asked a dean (who shall remain nameless) what would happen if a faculty member received a summer research grant and the research didn't pan out, didn't produce anything worth publishing. The dean said that never happens because you can  find an outlet to publish almost anything.

But do we really need all that "scholarship"? Would the world be any worse if I and other academics spent more time thinking and crafting a few high-quality articles that really added to the discussion, instead of trying to keep up the stream of constant publication? Would law and legal education suffer if we cut the number of law review articles in half?

Incentives are part of the problem. I have been in law teaching for 29 years, and my sense is that the pressure to publish is increasing. Quantity is surpassing quality as the prime criterion. When I entered legal education, two good articles was probably sufficient for tenure. Now, many untenured professors tell me they feel pressured to produce at least one article every year.

Another part of the problem is us. Sometimes, you don't have anything worthwhile to say. Sometimes, you realize you don't have anything worthwhile to say. Unfortunately, academics have big egos and, for many of us, the latter set is much smaller than the former, as illustrated by this Venn diagram.


And maybe part of the problem is generational. (WARNING: OLD FART ABOUT TO RANT ABOUT THE YOUNGSTERS) In a world where everything immediately goes to Facebook or Twitter, constant publication of low-quality material has become the norm. But, in defense of younger academics, the problem may be getting worse, but it's not new.

 For whatever reason, we're overindulging in scholarship. Perhaps we need an Academics Anonymous, with a sponsor to call every time we're about to add more fodder to law reviews. "Hi, my name is Steve, and I'm an academic."

C. Steven Bradford, Law Reviews, Research/Scholarhip | Permalink


This time you certainly had something worthwhile to say!

Posted by: Scott Killingsworth | Jul 14, 2015 7:46:02 AM

Thank you, Scott. But it would have been a mistake to convert this brief thought, whatever its merits, into a published law review article, with pages and pages of introductory background that no one really needs and dozens or hundreds of footnotes. Perhaps we would be better off if more people blogged much of what they're currently publishing in law reviews.

Posted by: Steve Bradford | Jul 14, 2015 7:53:33 AM

Borges: "It is a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books, setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes. The better way to go about it is to pretend that those books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them."

Posted by: Scott Killingsworth | Jul 14, 2015 5:39:44 PM

Steve, I do think that another issue is the failure of the law academy to agree on what worthwhile legal scholarship is. And even where there is some agreement (articulable standards or principles), peer and decanal evaluations—including tenure and promotion votes—may not enforce the standards in any agreed definition. Although scholarly productivity (often a part of faculty evaluations relating to scholarship) does involve the assessment of how much and what a faculty member publishes, you are dead-on right that we should not conflate or confuse quantity with quality.

Although defining valuable legal scholarship is tricky, it’s not impossible. I will forward a few thoughts below on norms, but some may disagree with my “take.” I will note that few tenure and promotion standards, for example, embody the ideas I share in the following paragraph.

Many agree that meritorious legal scholarship should be novel and useful. Both of these concepts may be approached from a variety of different perspectives based on the existing body of literature on a topic, including the statement of the thesis, the nature of the target audience, the scholarly approach to the research, and the nature of the derived prescriptions and proscriptions. But both concepts are approachable. Many also agree that quality legal scholarship comprises rigorous legal analysis. Reasonable minds can disagree on what that is, but its parameters and contents can be defined to a significant extent.

If individual law faculties at each law school were to achieve thoughtful consensus on the parameters of valuable legal scholarship and enforce their own rules on the same, do you think it would help? Or would law faculties still often just count output units and assess the quality of a law review or journal based on the name of the law school in the title when evaluating their colleagues’ scholarship? It may be only one piece of the puzzle, but I do think it has the potential to move things in the right direction. Then, again, as you know, I am an optimist.

Posted by: joanheminway | Jul 15, 2015 2:25:07 PM

As a junior person who tends to write on very current public policy issues, I look forward to the day when the academy values online journals that publish articles written for a peer audience as much as traditional law review articles written to attract the attention of very bright second and third year law students who may lack some context. The online journals publish much more quickly and allow scholars to get time-sensitive ideas out more concisely than the longer pieces that may come out a year later.

Posted by: MARCIA NARINE | Jul 23, 2015 3:36:02 AM


I'm chairing a committee that redrafted our tenure standards (not yet passed). One of our proposed changes was to specify that it's the quality and content of the scholarship that matter, not the medium of publication.

Posted by: Steve Bradford | Jul 23, 2015 5:59:00 AM

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