Final Thoughts on Journal Submissions
At the end of my last post I alluded to preemption as an obstacle to receiving an offer. Many times authors will be able to determine for themselves whether their article is novel or whether someone else had the same idea in 1986. Other times information about possibly preempting articles is more asymmetrical. My impression is that there are a couple of hot topics every year that grab the attention of many authors, usually based on what issues are being litigated or are in the news. For more than a year, topics like “fixing the mortgage crisis,” “immigration preemption,” “health care,” “international tax,” and “targeted killing” have all received a lot of attention from scholars. This is not to suggest that there is nothing left to be said about these topics, for new facts on the ground and new arguments can reframe the terms of the debate in ways that move scholarship forward. I look forward to seeing how work on targeted killing will continue to develop in the next year or so, for example.
But trendy topics like these carry strong first-mover advantages given the long time-horizon of the publication schedule. My sense is that an article completed today is not likely to be published sooner than January 2012, and articles published today were likely completed not much later than September 2010. There may be several articles about the same topic in the pipeline, none of which may be known to any of the other articles’ authors. Considering an example purely at random—sorry for readers who are working on this topic—the IL community is likely to see a large number of pieces on direct participation in hostilities come out sometime next spring. Authors don’t know what other authors are writing about, leading to an information gap.
This gap is asymmetrical, for on the other side of ExpressO, editors may see a glut of 10, 20, or 60 (gasp!) articles on a given topic. Even if editors cannot conclude formally that an article is preempted, they might think it carries a higher risk of preemption given the uncertainty of what other articles are in the pipeline. So too might they experience burnout on these topics, akin to the intertemporal preference-shifting effect I described in my first post. Even if alternative submissions expected to come in throughout the year might be higher quality, an article reviewed in April may preempt the better-executed article reviewed eight months later. Yet as these articles start to get published and the time horizon continues past a single volume’s publication cycle, authors start to see the glut of articles and may determine that it’s no longer profitable to write on that once-trendy topic, given fewer opportunities to carve out a novel argument for themselves. This may explain why, as a commenter noted after my first post, we haven’t seen many articles about torture in the past few years; early movers in 2003 to 2006 have made it difficult to come up with something new to talk about.
I’ll close my guest stint with a few brief thoughts, although I can try to respond to further questions or comments below.
• Five years ago my journal did not accept electronic submissions, but now all but a handful are electronic. Electronic submissions mean I can read your article on a smartphone in the gym, or on the train, without carrying around a stack of paper. It means I can distribute your article to editors who have summer jobs in far-flung cities. It means I am not killing trees. I, for one, welcome our new Internet overlords.
• To briefly wade into the debate about peer review: if professors really thought student-edited journals were not institutionally competent to review scholarship, they would sort into their own peer-reviewed journals. PRSM may be a start, but ultimately I don’t see control over the submissions process (the fun part) shifting to professors, until the latter start handling the citechecking and production process (the not-so-fun part). In this way, “calls for abandoning law reviews are counterproductive unless faculty are committed to occupying the field.”
• Readers skeptical about some of the claims I’ve made–such as editors having enough expertise to evaluate scholarship in a specialty area–might check out a post by Lisa Larrimore Ouellette, a YLJ articles editor, that I just now came across and that makes some of the same points.
• I suggested last time that articles generally place into the right category for their quality. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, and isn’t meant to suggest something like a “merit pyramid,” as a commenter alluded to in a recent thread on PrawfsBlawg. I’m sure I’m not the only person who has read an article and thought its quality didn’t necessarily match up with how it placed (in either direction). Anomalous preferences, internal board politics, and informational asymmetries can throw wrenches into the placement process, giving us pause before thinking rankings are anything but a highly imperfect proxy for “quality.”
• That said, it may still be a proxy. Getting to a final board read at a “top” journal may mean that an article is among the best 30 to 100 articles they are considering. Even if a publication offer doesn’t follow, if journals disclose that a submission got to a final board read, authors might conclude from that signal that they’re doing something right.
• Journals will have different policies about whether they treat “articles” and “essays” in the same process. Many collapse the distinction, unless of course they specifically say otherwise in their submissions instructions.
• The consensus seems to be that many journals have closed up shop for this volume. Authors might consider off-season submissions for journals that do year-round submissions.
Thanks again to Roger and everyone at Opinio Juris for hosting me during a week that turned out to have some important news for those interested in international law. For everyone who has placed articles this year, congratulations; for those currently working on articles with an eye toward submitting later this year, best of luck!