Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Peer Review for Law Reviews: What's Up with That?

Last month, a colleague of mine received a request from a law review (one unaffiliated with her or our institution) to perform a peer review of an article that the law review was considering for publication.  The period for the requested review was short--about a week--and arrived with no prior notice two weeks before classes started.  No compensation was offered.  While she (an acknowledged expert in the overall field and on the specific topic covered in the article) was, indeed, flattered by the request and very interested in the article, she had to turn the request down given the nature and extent of her commitments here.  

She wondered, and I did, too, how prevalent these kinds of requests are from law reviews.  I have performed peer reviews of articles for our journals here at UT Law from time to time and have considered it part of my service to the institution.  But the only other peer reviews I have done have been of books or book proposals for publishers, for which I have received some (not a lot of) compensation for my trouble.  So (given that I know I sometimes have blinders on and miss things that are going on outside my narrow span of activity), I asked around . . . .  My co-bloggers and other colleagues contributed to the facts and ideas I share here.

Apparently, these kinds of requests for peer review have become more common, particularly among the elite law school primary law reviews.  I understand them to be a laudable attempt to improve the quality of the articles selected for publication, since law students typically are not knowledgeable or experienced enough to consistently make good judgments in that regard.  This is, in that way, an interesting development, and given its value, I guess I could live with the burden of providing these peer reviews on some level--as long as my email inbox is not clogged with requests--especially at critical junctures in the academic year.

But I would suggest that the law journals intent on getting peer review of submissions collectively build a process that incorporates this kind of review more consistently in the ordinary course of their article review processes, rather than as a last-minute surprise request of an expert faculty member.  This would take some effort, but law review editors-in-chief have engaged in collective action in the past to some effect.  They can do it again.

Having said that, there may be collateral damage--unforeseen side effects--if law reviews start adopting the peer review system on a wider basis.  For example, the length of the publication cycle may get longer if peer reviews are to be routinely incorporated into the process.  Sequential submissions may be required, so that peer reviewers' time is not deemed wasted when an author "trades up" to a higher-order journal.  And (perhaps more subtly) the process may change the potentially more efficient norm, at least among my colleagues, that law review articles be peer-reviewed by internal and external peers "prior" to submission.  (I.e., we read each other's drafts and workshop our papers before they are submitted for publication review.)  Of course, scholars who routinely publish in peer review journals also usually vet their papers before submission . . . .

What do others know and think about this informal version of peer review?  Does it perform a valuable function?  Is it an inefficient tax on our time as teachers, scholars, and servants of our institutions and the community?  If it is a worthy innovation, how should it best be organized to optimize its benefits and minimize its costs?  I welcome your views.

Joan Heminway, Law Reviews | Permalink


I have served as this sort of peer-reviewer once, for Stanford’s main law review.

While I am mostly a fan of traditional blind peer-review, a big problem with this law review style peer review, in my opinion, is that it is rarely truly blind.

Prior to publication, law professors tend to send their articles to people who write in their specific area and workshop the article --- much more than my business colleagues seem to do. In the review I did for Stanford, I had already provided comments to the author of the article, and told Stanford I had done so. Stanford still wanted me to do the review, which was clearly not “blind.” But even in cases where the professor reviewer is reviewing blind, the initial selection was not blind; the student have the author CV, cover letter, etc. Also, I got the sense that the students at Stanford had already decided that they wanted the article and just wanted me to make sure there wasn’t anything incredibly flawed about it.

In addition, while I tried to do a good job on my review, there is no compensation, as you mentioned. Thus, I am not sure how thorough of reviews they get. On the business side of the academy, serving as a reviewer for a journal is common as part of your service, and sometimes a de facto requirement of becoming editor of the journal, which can be quite a prestigious honor depending on the journal. In law, we just don’t have those norms or many faculty edited journals. I do think it would be good for the discipline if we had more faculty reviewed and edited law journals, perhaps with law student editors as well to assist.

Posted by: Haskell Murray | Sep 16, 2015 12:02:48 PM

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