The Growth of International Law Scholarship

by Roger Alford

There are a variety of ways one can measure the growing importance of international law scholarship. One metric that I have never seen discussed is simple: how often has the term “international law” been used in academic scholarship? Using Westlaw’s JLR library I calculated how often “international law” was referenced from 1987 to 2011. The results are impressive. Twenty-five years ago there were only 706 articles that included that term, compared with 4,300 today. That’s an annual growth rate of 7.5 percent. At that pace, in ten years there will be over 8,800 references to international law, and over 26,000 references in a quarter century.

Growth of International Law

It’s also noteworthy that today’s academic scholarship references “international law” more often than other core terms. Based on a Westlaw JLR search for 2011, “international law” (4,300 references) appears more often than “criminal law” (3,918 references), “intellectual property” (3,233 references), “constitutional law” (3,198 references), “torts” (2,709 references), and “professional responsibility” (1,092 references).

I knew that international law scholarship was popular, but I would not have guessed it has shown such sustained growth across the decades.

UPDATE: Further to Stuart Ford’s comments on January 9, I thought I would post the graph he is discussing. Very interesting as a point of comparison.

Google NGram2

12 Responses

  1. That’s a very interesting graph, but I wonder if you meant your projections of future levels of international law scholarship to be taken literally?
    I doubt that international law scholarship can continue to grow indefinitely.  After all, most schools can’t support more than one or two people that  work largely or exclusively on international law issues, and my impression is that most schools have already hired those scholars.  To me, this suggests that international law scholarship has to hit a plateau at some point, and that we might already be near that plateau.  (I think this has already happened within my own specialty – international criminal law – but there may well be other specialties that are still expanding.)
    What do others think?

  2. Stuart,
    I can’t predict the future, but I see no reason why international law scholarship will not continue to grow in the future.  Perhaps there will be a plateau, but a quarter century of experience would suggest otherwise.
    Roger Alford

  3. Is there a way to control for the possible overall increase in scholarship (particularly as recorded in that Westlaw database)?

  4. Jens,

    That’s a great question.  I’m sure there is a way to do that if one had access to the complete Westlaw JLR database across the years.  If you type the word “law” in the Westlaw JLR database, you get 5,578 references for 1987, 6,561 for 1988, 7,004 for 1989, and 8,210 for 1990.  Unfortunately, after 1990 the JLR database hits a ceiling with a generic reference to “over 10,000.”

    What you could do is compare the growth rate of “international law” references with other core terms such as “criminal law,” “torts,” or “constitutional law” across the years to see if part of the explanation is, as you suggest, simply the proliferation of academic scholarship.

    Roger Alford

  5. Is the vertical axis a count of total references (i.e. counting each repetition of the phrase in a single article), or a count of total articles with at least one reference?  If the former, and I think that may be the case, I think that this may not be the best metric: whereas “international law” is often used in forms such as “International law prohibits (something),” I have the sense that the other terms are less commonly used in the same manner.  A count of total appearances of “international law” may then be somewhat inflated compared to the other terms you refer to.
    That said, the other terms may have other factors of their own that inflate their count, and in the end, the growth in the metric remains significant.

  6. Bryan,
    The vertical axis refers to the total number of articles that reference “international law” in any given year.  Thus, in 1987 there were 706 separate articles that used the term “international law” at least once.
    Roger Alford

  7. Hello Roger, My name is Eka from Indonesia.
    It’s nice information Roger. However, eventhough your metric shows significant increasing to “international law” reference, but i think it’s not given any real significant role of international law in international sphere. In other words, i would like said that the term “international law” just used by party (scholar, states, organization) as a discourse not to solve the problem. We can see this phenomena in relation with environmental problem and international security.
    What yours opinion on that?

  8. Eka,
    You are asking a huge question as to whether international law is effective and why nations obey or do not obey international law.  Countless books have been written on the subject, so I will not dare try to give you a short answer here.  
    Roger Alford

  9. my guess is that increased use of phrases such as “human right,” “international arbitration,” “international trade,” “war crime,”and “International crime” and words such as treaty, torture, genocide, and NAFTA would be similar

  10. Hi again,
    I didn’t want to mess with Westlaw, but I tried putting the phrases international law, criminal law, torts, and constitutional law into the Google Books ngram viewer.  The results were interesting, and not quite what I was expecting.  I don’t think this site will let me link images, so I will describe the graph. (Note that Google’s ngram viewer only indexes books that have been scanned and OCR’ed by Google AFAIK.)  I set the time period at 1800 to 2008 and the smoothing at 3.
    The graph does show an increase in the use of international law in books over the last 25 years.  (Note also that the graph shows not the absolute number of hits but the relative frequency that the phrase appears, which I think should take care of concerns related to changes in the number of books that get published over time.) However, this recent increase comes after a significant decrease that began around the mid-1960s.  Moreover, according to Google, the heydey of international law (at least appearances of that phrase in books) was right after WWI!
    The frequency of the use of international law in books has been approximately three times as frequent as criminal law, torts or constitutional law for for almost the entirety of the 20th century.
    Interesting. This is obviously not a very scientific approach, so I am not sure how much stock to put in it, but the results were not what I was expecting.

  11. One other thing that I thought that was interesting is that the first time that the phrase international law rises above the lines for criminal law, constitutional law and torts is in the mid 1850s.  

  12. I played around with the ngram viewer a bit more to compare the phrases “international law” with “the law of nations.”  I began with the hypothesis that the phrase international law would replace the phrase law of nations over time.  And indeed, that appears to be what happens, with usages of “the law of nations” beginning to trail off in the 1870s and eventually going down to almost zero.  The phrase “international law” takes off around 1850, there is a brief period of overlap in the 1860s and 1870s and then international law pulls ahead of the law of nations and remains that way to the present.
    I am not sure what this shows, if anything, but playing with the ngram viewer is fun. I guess if I had to justify the time spent on this, I would say that it shows that Professor Alford’s numbers have to be viewed in a much broader context and that the uses of international law/the law of nations have fluctuated over time, both increasing and decreasing in (I presume) response to political and legal events. So I guess ultimately that I would still question the assumption that the next 25 years will continue the trends of the last 25 years.

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