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A Focus on Quality of Scholarship, Rather than Placement

Ann Bartow has one solution to the obsessive focus on placement of articles: have faculty publish in their schools’ law journals. Pretty interesting idea–and that’s sort of the way things used to be, where the a review published the work of the school’s faculty and students (and some others, too). Reviews from the 1920s and 1930s had a ton of “home cooking.” Then again, law reviews publish a lot of their faculty’s work today, too!

One thing I’ve been thinking about is the need to focus on the quality of scholarship, rather than its placement. Here are some interesting data points on this score. Last summer a terrific r.a. (Joseph Sherman) looked at the citations to articles that appeared about fifteen years ago in about a dozen leading law journals. We looked at some of the very most prestigious journals (Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Chicago) as well as some of the other elite (Vanderbilt) and some of the other terrific journals (Indiana, Wisconsin, Hastings). The idea was to see how individual articles, rather than journals overall, fared.

Citations to articles varied greatly, even within a journal. Kathleen Sullivan’s legendary Foreword to the Harvard Law Review was the big winner–and lots of articles in elite journals did really well–some of the most-cited articles in journals published outside the most elite journals did better than the less well-cited articles in the most elite journals, like the Harvard Law Review.

Want a graphic illustration of this? Check out the graph below. It plots citations per article in selected law reviews. Each circle is an article.


While articles in the most elite journals receive more citations on average than the less elite (but still highly regarded) other journals studied, some articles in the less elite journals are more heavily cited than many articles in even the most elite journals. We should be wary of judgments about quality based on place of publication. We should, of course, also be wary of judgments about assessing the quality of scholarship based on number of citations and we should, therefore, continue to evaluate scholarship through close reads of it.

Now, I strenuously argue in favor of reading pieces, rather than substituting one biased gauge of quality (citations) for another biased gauge (placement). I’m merely using the citations to raise the point that placement doesn’t bear a perfect correlation to relative quality. That, anyway, is the kind of law school I’d like to see–where hiring committees rally around a candidate by saying, “she wrote a great article!” rather than “she published in UCLA!”

If you’re interested in the short paper (including which articles were the big winners of citations), it’s available here.

Alfred Brophy