Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Five Tips for Law Review Online Supplements

Orin Kerr and Doug Berman have used the launch of the Virginia Law Review's "In Brief" as an opportunity to raise some interesting questions about law review online supplements here and here. Rather than asking questions, I'm going to take this opportunity to provide some unsolicited advice to the people behind these online supplements.

1. The premise of online supplements is inherently flawed.

These supplements were created as an attempt to make law reviews more "timely," "accessible," and to "fill the gap between the blogosphere and the traditional law review article" (I hadn't even realized that there was a gap, let alone that it needed to be filled). But this premise is inherently flawed -- in fact I'd go so far as to say that law students who believe "timeliness" should be a significant priority of law journals have a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of legal scholarship. As I have discussed previously here, a journal's timeliness is rarely a consideration for its readers.

Law journals are not magazines; very few individuals (other than the unfortunate soul whose job it is to proofread the thing before publication) reads the Virginia Law Review from cover to cover. Rather, most articles are read individually, often many months or years after they are initially published. An attorney is generally not going to care about some law review article discussing the implications of Benslimane v. Gonzales until she's confronted with a situation where that case is somehow relevant. It's at that point where she might search the electronic database of her choice for articles that discuss the case. This isn't a bad thing: it's simply how legal scholarship works.

Of course, scholars have an interest in getting timely access to papers before they're published -- but aren't there already multiple places where you can get access to tomorrow's research today?

Furthermore, it makes little sense for the Virginia Law Review to try to become more timely. Blogs, the news media, and other outlets have an inherent advantage in the "timeliness" area, and nothing a law journal can do will make it more timely than those institutions. In fact, given that blogs, the news media, etc. already do such a great job providing fast news dissemination and analysis, it's unclear why law journal innovators would even want to enter that market, particularly when the primary product that law journals produced has many many flaws with it that should be corrected first.

2. Stop treating your online supplements like the red-headed stepchildren of legal scholarship

Newsflash: if Doug Berman needs to ask other law professors "whether they believe that [articles published in online supplements are] generally 'counted' in any assessment of their scholarly productivity," it should go without saying that your online supplements are broken and need substantial fixing (or perhaps outright elimination). In fact, given that law journal editors seem to have done everything they possibly could have done to make online supplements not be taken seriously, it's amazing Professor Berman even bothered asking this question at all.

How are online supplements the black sheep of legal scholarship? Well, just compare them to the rest of legal scholarship:

a. Ridiculous citation format

Online supplements have the oddest citation formats I have ever seen. Just take a look at some of these things:
    • Abraham Bell & William Burke-White, Debate, Is the United Nations Still Relevant?, 155 U. Pa. L. Rev. PENNumbra 74 (2006), http://www.pennumbra.com/debates/united_nations/un-full.pdf.
    • Randal C. Picker, Of Pirates and Puffy Shirts, Va. L. Rev. In Brief, Jan. 22, 2007.
    • Anthony Ciolli, Much Ado About Nothing: Why Student Scholarship Has Nothing To Fear from Blogs, 116 Yale L.J. Pocket Part 210 (2006), http://thepocketpart.org/2006/12/18/ciolli.html.
    • Stacey L. Dogan, What Is Dilution, Anyway?, 105 Mich. L. Rev. First Impressions 103 (2006), http://www.michiganlawreview.org/firstimpressions/vol105/dogan.pdf.
Who would want to have an eyesore like 155 U. Pa. L. Rev. PENNumbra 74 on their CV? I certainly wouldn't. I still cringe when I see 116 Yale L.J. Pocket Part 210 on my own CV.

Here's a thought: how about just using 155 U. Pa. L. Rev. 74? After all, PENNumbra is a part of the U. Pa. L. Rev., right? So how about treating it as such instead of treating it like a second class publication. And on a similar note...

b. Publishing exclusively online is NOT a good thing

I'm not sure what I find more amazing -- the fact that some very prestigious law reviews are trying to spin an online-only supplement as some sort of big advantage, or that those law review editors think law professors, law students, practitioners, etc. will actually believe that publishing online is more prestigious than publishing in print. Can anyone name even one law journal that, when given the choice between publishing in print [with law school funding] and publishing online? I can't... in fact, I can name more than a dozen online journals that would absolutely love to publish in print but are stuck publishing online because of money reasons.

Yeah, publishing online theoretically has some advantages -- but is there any question that publishing online *and* in print is far better? The Virginia Law Review publishes almost 2000 pages per year -- is it that difficult to stick in another 30-50 from the online supplement, especially given that those pages have already gone through the same editing editing process as all the other pages in the print version and thus sticking them in the print version would involve shockingly little additional work?

Does anyone think Professor Berman would have to question whether supplement commentary "counts" as scholarship if those essays appeared in the print version and had a normal citation format? I don't.

3. Aren't online supplements supposed to be... supplements?

Go visit YaleLawJournal.org, VirginiaLawReview.org, and PennLawReview.com. Do you get the websites of the Yale Law Journal, the Virginia Law Review, and the University of Pennsylvania Law Review? No... you get the Pocket Part, In Brief, and PENNumbra. If these things are just supplements, why have they displaced the journal's entire website?

4. If you want to compete with blogs, go and compete... with blogs.

Sorry Michigan Law Review, but you're not going to "fill the gap between the blogosphere and the traditional law review article" by sticking a couple of solicited essays on your website eight times a year with no method available for user comments. And Virginia Law Review, don't expect In Brief to become bigger than Volokh when you won't even consider submissions between mid-October and late February.

Here's a thought: if you want your law journal to, for whatever reason, compete with blogs, how about actually competing with blogs? Independent blogs are increasingly becoming affiliated with pre-existing organizations. For instance, just a couple of weeks ago the Empirical Legal Studies Blog became the official blog of the AALS Section on Law and Social Sciences.

So, if you want to become timely like a blog, or "bridge the gap" between law reviews and blogs, how about making your "supplement" an existing law professor blog? I'm sure "Virginia Law Review's Concurring Opinions" would meet Virginia Law Review's goals a lot better than "Virginia Law Review's In Brief."

5. Think like a business.

If law review editors viewed law reviews as a business (or something that has the potential to be a business), I'm fairly confident that virtually all of the problems plaguing law reviews could be avoided, including all the issues stemming from online supplements. This sort of analysis is not that hard to do, and is ultimately far less time consuming than creating an online supplement just because Yale did it or because blogs are all the rage among law professors.

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7 Comments:

Blogger Tim Hadley said...

I wonder if any of these supplemental articles make their way into traditional article indexes or databases. My hunch is that the answer is "no," though they might if the journal runs print copies as well (as you suggested they should do). Excluded from those databases, these supplemental articles probably won't get the attention of practitioners, and except for those articles that draw some attention from references in other media (such as blogs), their scholarly audience will be limited to the few, if any, who make an affirmative effort to follow what's printed in the electronic supplements.

Standard Google is often too scattershot for efficient legal research, and Google Scholar doesn't appear to pick up these supplements (at least not yet). If they don't appear in Westlaw or Lexis or some secondary index, they're almost invisible. What can't be found when it's needed doesn't get read.

1/24/2007 2:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Harvard Law Review Forum is included in Westlaw and Lexis (citation __ Harv. L. Rev. F. __)

1/24/2007 11:48 PM  
Blogger Luis Villa said...

5. Think like a business.
Would love to hear you elaborate on this, Anthony, since my immediate reaction on reading this is that if journal authors thought like businesses, they'd all immediately quit and become consultants. In this day and age, no other business creates and stockpiles knowledge far ahead of time for customers who haven't indicated a need yet- that is inefficient and creates information goods that aren't well suited to the needs of the customers. Instead, customers indicate need by writing a check and get the knowledge custom-made. (Either that, or they write a book about it for mass publication. Journals are neither.)

[If journal editors thought about it like a business... I suppose the market for student talent is busted enough, and lacks enough other indicators of skill, that the editors might continue editing. But again that is only a reasonable business model because the overall market for talent is so broken.]

1/25/2007 12:01 AM  
Blogger Anthony Ciolli said...

Tim: 100% agreed.

Luis: I address your concerns in this post.

1/25/2007 10:17 AM  
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