Monday, January 25, 2010

The Future (or lack thereof) of Student-Edited Journals: Why Most Law Journals No Longer Give Scholars What They Need or Want

Heather K. Gerken

Michael Froomkin and several others have come up with a quite smart idea – JOTWELL, which stands for the "Journal of Things We Like (Lots)." Scholars are asked to post semi-regularly on an article they admire. Today I've posted on two great pieces by David Schleicher, a young election law scholar at George Mason.

I agreed to take part in Jotwell because I can still remember what it's like to be untenured. I was lucky enough to have a bunch of senior scholars go out of their way to get me conference invitations and publicize my work. Now that I'm on the other side of the tenure, posting about great work by young scholars falls under the category of "the least I could do."

Jotwell isn't just about helping young scholars get the attention they deserve. It's designed to deal with a bigger problem in legal scholarship: figuring out what to read.

As Jotwell's mission statement indicates, there are so many articles being published in so many places that it's hard to sort the wheat from the chaff. We all use heuristics, of course. We tend to read the latest work of people with big names from big schools, people whose work we've liked in the past, or articles placed in peer-edited journals (at least in the handful of specialities where they exist). Some even rely on SSRN downloads or the prestige of the student-edited journal in figuring out what to read. Needless to say, none of these heuristics gives us a full picture of what's out there. There aren't enough peer-edited journals to winnow down the list. Relying on the reputation of the author or his school will, at the very least, prevent you from seeing good work from younger or underplaced scholars. The student-edited journals don't help much here. Even if you think that most students are remotely competent at evaluating scholarship -- a big if -- most of them are relying heavily on letterhead as a heuristic for identifying the best work. And papers get downloaded on SSRN simply because they state a controversial thesis or have a catchy précis.

The development of sites like Jotwell make me wonder whether student-edited journals (with the possible exception of the top-tier journals) are going to have much of a future in this brave, new world. Student-edited journals survived in the past because they provided authors something they needed: a place to publish. Now there are a myriad of publication sites that don't require delaying publication and going through a lengthy editing process. And most student-edited journals have never provided what authors want: a signal that the work is of highly quality. Perhaps, as Michael Froomkin has suggested to me, Jotwell is a boon for student-edited journals, as it makes them all equally relevant. But my guess is that while Jotwell and enterprises like it won't be the source of the student-edited journals' demise, they are the harbingers of it.

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