Monday, March 19, 2007

If an article falls in a forest....

Blogs and listservs are abuzz with reactions to Adam Liptak's When Rendering Decisions, Judges Are Finding Law Reviews Irrelevant. Coupled with the recent traffic about Brian Leiter's new rankings using SSRN downloads, including Brian's rankings themselves, Ted Seto's takes on Brian's work (here, here, and here), and Chris Fairman's take (here). Add to this discussion Al Brophy's post (here) reacting to Adam Liptak's post, along with the multiplicity of posts on blogging as scholarship (the easiest way to get to all of these is here), and what you get is the question of whether we're entering a paradigm shift regarding legal scholarship.

Here are some assumptions on my part:

1. It used to matter, especially pre-tenure, where one published one's work, because electronic databases like Westlaw and Lexis were expensive, and so one's work would receive more attention if it had been published in law reviews to which key players (judges, other academics, and attorneys) were likely to subscribe.

2. SSRN, Bepress, and websites generally now make it easier for researchers to find articles without having to pay for Westlaw and Lexis searches or having to maintain a lot of subscriptions for major law reviews.

3. Certain specialty law reviews get more attention from key players than do certain general law reviews. For example, I'm more likely to read something published in the Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics than in [insert name of general law review here].

4. Law review publishing takes time. Lots of time. Articles come out long after they're written, and some articles lose traction because of the delay. Blogs, on the other hand, provide immediate gratification due to immediate (or near-immediate) publication.

5. Blogging as scholarship is still new. Some folks believe that the major players aren't, well, playing yet:
The other main limitation of blogs as forums for serious scholarly
debate--tactfully not noted by Kate [Litvak]--is that only a miniscule number of
first-rate legal scholars in any field actually blog on scholarly topics;
indeed, if you subtract the Chicago faculty blog and Balkinization, "miniscule"
may overstate the number of leading lights in their fields who blog in their
areas of scholarly expertise (you can probably count the remainder on one
hand). I find it hard to see how blogs can have much significant scholarly
impact when the most significant scholars rarely participate in the forum, or,
at least, rarely participate for scholarly purposes.

Brian Leiter, "Blogs as Scholarship" Conference at Harvard. My guess is that we'll need some more empirical work to figure out if more and more big names are blogging--and whether blogging is actually a great way to turn some great people into bigger names than they'd be w/o blogging. (Am I the only one who remembers that, for almost all law reviews, third-year law students select which articles get published and that, for many of them--and formerly many of us--their decisions may stem as much from personal preference, of the "I hate Subject X" variety, and from eyeballing the ease of editing and cite-checking as they do from an understanding of what makes an article important?)

Here's my rather long-winded point: the discussion of how best to develop and disseminate scholarship that counts (i.e., gets used) is important, but as we start shifting the paradigm away from traditional top-50 law reviews (and why that cutoff number?), we run the risk of moving to downloads as yet another number to feed into the USNWR rankings. (See Jeff Harrison's Which Tail Wags? post.) Once we use downloads--or even "top 50 reviews"--as a shadow variable for the real issue, we're in real "angels dancing on the heads of pins" territory.

The real issue: is our scholarship of use to some community, whether that community be other academics, judges, legislators, attorneys, or students? If it's not, why not?


Blogger Jeff Harrison said...

I fear we write for other law professors because they are the ones who provide the reenforcement. This is fine -- one idea leads to anothor -- it is a process. But somehow there should be a linkage to an outside audience at some stage of the process. Unless there is some kind of 6 degrees of separation analysis that links any wor to a court or legislative body or another body with a public impact, I am not sure we should be doing it someone else's dime.

3/20/2007 2:31 PM  
Blogger Jim Milles said...

A couple of years ago Tom Smith at The Right Coast did a citation study that suggested that 43% of law review articles are never cited--even by other scholars--and 79% are cited less than ten times. It's not hard to conclude that most law articles are written for, and the author's half dozen or so academic colleagues and/or rivals.

On the other hand, many law blog postings are read by hundreds, if not thousands, of readers. Blog entries also tend to be concise and more readable. Which medium is likely to be more influential on legislative staff and regulators?

3/29/2007 3:27 PM  

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