Agenda-Setting Editors and Specialized Articles

by James Tierney

Often used to model legislative politics, positive political theory (PPT) has core insights that can be applied to the journal submissions process as well. There are important differences between the legislative and editorial processes. Like legislative action, however, editors’ deliberations and voting on submissions are a process of aggregating preferences within the constraints of voting rules and other institutional features. In this post I sketch out the outlines of such a theory. (For an application of PPT potentially of interest to the international law community, check out Josh Benson’s treatment of the “Guantanamo Game” a few years back.)

Each journal has its own set of submissions review procedures and voting rules, but decisionmaking is likely to be similar enough at each journal, and it’s likely to take the form of a sequential game. Editors play a micro game for each article, and a macro game for the entire slate of articles. We can describe the macro game simply, for our purposes, as maximizing the sum of the twelve—or however many articles in a slate—best outcomes across micro games. Each micro game starts effectively when an article comes into the pipeline, and ends either when the editors reject the article, or when the author accepts or declines their publication offer. The collegiality on journal boards may mean there are norms against openly strategic voting, and voting systems might be designed to minimize editors’ incentive to vote strategically. Nonetheless, we can assume that people will be strategic if they’re trying to maximize their preferences; they will figure out how to play the system to get the outcomes they want. And besides, it’s easier to model real-world processes by making unrealistic simplifying assumptions.

Voting rules will shape the details of the submissions process, and will also shape the leeway editors will have in bringing articles to the next stage of review, deliberation, and voting. Time is a valuable resource for editors and no one wants to waste time reviewing articles for which everyone knows the full board will not extend a publication offer. The decisions at earlier stages of review are made in the shadow of the decisions that must be made at later stages of review—and in particular, the preferences of the agenda-setters at different stages of reviews. Imagine there are three rounds of review: cursory review by a single editor, intermediate review by a five-editor panel, and full board review by nine editors. Imagine further that the voting rules require a single editor to bump an article up to intermediate review, three editors to bump up to full review, and six editors to make an offer. (The point should be similar if the journal uses a different voting rule, like weighted voting.) In the cursory and intermediate review stages the editors’ attention will be directed toward whether an article will make it to full-board review, and whether it will receive an offer. In particular, they will be attuned to the preferences of agenda-setters at each stage of review. They will also be attuned to the reputational consequences of their decisions with other members of the intermediate and final review groups: flagging an article that does not gain support in intermediate review may hurt an editor’s credibility going forward.

Agenda setters are the “swing” editors whose preferences will be pivotal and crucial in evaluating a given submission. Editors work closely together and develop senses of each others’ preferences and idiosyncrasies. Consider the question of placing international law articles in mainline journals. Editors will have different preferences along a unidimensional spectrum—essentially whether they are more or less interested in publishing an article about international law. Some editors may be very interested in international law, while others may be skeptics. If editors know each other’s preferences, the entrepreneurial editor pushing to publish a certain international-law article will look to the preferences of the sixth of the nine voting editors. The three editors whose votes she does not need aren’t likely to come into the analysis—except to the extent journals are social institutions, editors care about internal reputations, etc. Thus the only international-law articles that are likely to get serious attention past intermediate review are those that are consistent with the preferences of that pivotal sixth vote. (This same idea can be applied to other questions—whether to publish an article for which the ideological slant is more or less conservative, whether to publish a bankruptcy article, whether to publish an empirical article, etc.)

All journals are constrained in the number of articles they can publish, and thus in the number of offers they can make. In order to fill a volume with twelve articles, the board may make from twelve to many dozens of offers (depending on how many articles get expedited away to other journals). These constraints interact with the unidimensional preferences of editors on various issues, which are likely to change across the macro game as article slots fill up with articles of one type or another. So once a board makes an offer on, or places, an international law article in one of its slots, the preferences of the full board may shift up the spectrum; the sixth voter’s preferences in particular will become more stringent; and another international law article will face a higher burden of persuasion in order to elicit an offer. This preference-shifting phenomenon might help explain why authors go for the first-mover advantage, a question I puzzled over in my last post. First-mover strategies work well when journals fill up quickly. But for journals that do rolling submissions, the vote on the submission will still be oriented toward the merits of this piece in light of alternative submissions expected to come in through the year.

In short, a specialty article will often face an uphill battle in a mainline journal; in order to be taken seriously, it will have to be one of the “best” articles of that specialty that the editors anticipate seeing that year (given the preference-shifting effects of making an offer). This may mean many things: the article is interesting, provocative, and well argued; it is technically well executed and substantially finished; or it has received comments at workshops and from other professors, and thus the author has addressed many possible counterarguments. Along these dimensions, the idea of the “best” article represents one that will bring the journal the most bang for its editorial-labor buck. This idea also captures the possibility that the article’s argument is wide enough to secure votes along other preference dimensions. An article about international criminal law, or international banking regulation, may have substantive overlap with editors’ preferences in other areas. For example, this will collapse into unidimensional preferences when the editors interested in international law, and the editors interested in criminal law, all vote together as a coalition for this article—a coalition that may be enough to secure a sixth vote.

What does this mean for international-law scholars seeking to publish in mainline journals? First, specialized articles will be placed in specialized journals, while generalized articles will be placed in generalized journals. The more an article is able to draw connections to doctrines, debates, cases, examples, implications, etc., outside the narrow field in which an international-law article is operating, the more likely that the article will satisfy the pivotal agenda-setting sixth editor’s preferences. Moreover, having many high-quality specialized journals in a given area (like IL) may make it more difficult for authors to land articles in mainline journals. An editor’s conclusion that an article’s subject matter is too narrowly specialized would be shaped by the wide set of alternative journals in which the author could publish. My intuition is that if there were more criminal law specialty journals, for example, we’d probably see mainline journals substituting away from publishing as many pieces on criminal law. The take-home for authors here, though, is that appealing to a wider audience can be helpful.

A second suggestion is that authors should take advantage of the credible signal that an expedite request provides. The best bet is to play up the ladder, since the most helpful signals for mainline journals will be expedites from top secondary journals. Since (as I explained above) an IL article would have to be among the “best” IL pieces a board would see all year, the signal of an offer from a top secondary journal is a more credible signal that yours is one of the “best” pieces, than an offer from merely any secondary journal. In this sense, playing up the ladder may mean taking advantage of the secondary-journal expedite process before moving over to mainline journals. At the same time, securing offers from mainline journals helps cut back on the previous paragraph’s concerns about an article’s scope being too narrow.

A final suggestion would be to take time to get an article into the best possible shape. The vast majority of article submissions are undertheorized early drafts. The best articles are those that look as if they might be publishable immediately; for these the author has invested considerably more time and effort in polishing its arguments—including by addressing material counterarguments. Articles of this sort are probably fewer than 10% of submissions; because of their relative rarity, very well executed articles are those most likely to make it to intermediate or full-board review. Reading a well-executed IL article may favorably shift the preferences of pivotal editors who might not otherwise be interested in publishing the article just for its subject matter.

I can’t offer much more than that by way of the specific challenges IL authors face at mainline journals. It would be folly to try to identify what, in particular, articles editors at mainline journals are looking for in IL scholarship. I doubt more than one or two editors will have thought about IL enough to have developed such preferences. Relatively “expert” editors—who are agenda setters in their own right—may be tasked in reviewing IL submissions in the earlier rounds of review and thus would be positioned to choose the articles that both coincide with their subject-matter preferences and that are likely to secure the pivotal sixth vote in full-board review. My own subject-matter interests, for example, would have made me more amenable to reviewing articles about the laws of war, and less amenable to articles about international banking regulation. But the preferences of these editors and of boards in general will be hidden (unless articulated in calls-for-submission, for example), will differ widely from editor to editor and from journal to journal, and thus will not be available to authors who would want to approach the submissions process strategically.

5 Responses

  1. Thanks.  I did note the excellent Josh Benson article using PPT theory does not – from my short skim – mention the impact law in terms of international law in acting as a constraint on this process for the Executive, Legislative and Supreme Court. 

    There is this basic rule of international law that says that no state can extract itself from its international obligations through its internal laws.  So this three-card monte game between the three branches plays out – at least for types like me – against the background of US obligations more than internal law dynamics from the Constitution down.

    But, to speak that is to speak heresy too fluently to the sixth editor.

    This is an excellent foreign relations law article – one basic problem with the way international law is understood in the United States.


  2. Can you say more about what makes something a “speciality” article, versus a “general” article?  By “general,” do you mean an article about the grand theory of the law that is not subject-area specific?  Or do you mean an article that is situated in a specialized area of the law that is part of the required curriculum at most law schools (e.g., civil procedures, con law), and is therefore “general” with respect to student editors’ knowledge of the law?

  3. I really appreciate this series of posts and find the information useful.  I’m an author at a lower-tier school, placing in journals ranked 30-50 in USNews, wishing I could place better.  Please address these mysteries:
    – Exclusive submissions – if authors submit exclusively to your top-10 journal (and explain this), this eliminates the signal of an expedite from a lower-ranked journal but also eliminates the possibility of the article being stolen away, and of exploding offers.  So do exclusive submissions help or hurt the article’s chances of making it past the first round of review?  Of obtaining an offer?

    – Summer submissions (say, June 2 or July 2) – help or hurt the article’s chances of making it past the first round of review?  Of obtaining an offer?

    – Co-authored articles – help or hurt the article’s chances of making it past the first round of review?  Of obtaining an offer?

  4. “The vast majority of article submissions are undertheorized early drafts. The best articles are those that look as if they might be publishable immediately; for these the author has invested considerably more time and effort in polishing its arguments—including by addressing material counterarguments. Articles of this sort are probably fewer than 10% of submissions…”

    Wow. I’m amazed. I always assumed, and assumed everyone else assumed, that one’s article had to be actually or virtually complete before submitting. When I was a law review editor back in the 80s, we laughed at the cover letter for one submission in which the professor stated to the law review president his expectation that he (the president) would put his staff to work on supplying the footnotes.

  5. @Don – I’ve heard and read elsewhere that editors receive numerous submissions that are little more than outlines or the type of thing we receive from students when they submit a “rough draft” (a dozen rambling pages of random thoughts with promises to write important sections later).

    But the author here says “undertheorized,” which I think is the operative term for the 90-10 ratio that follows.  The fact is, if you read a lot of law review articles from second and third tier law reviews, the author’s ideas are often half-baked, superficial, topic ill-defined, oblivious to important related research, etc – especially compared with the articles in the top 10 journals.  As you go further down the rankings in the journals, the articles increasingly substitute passion for precision, or thumping in place of theory.

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