Writing For a Jury of Your Peers

Have you ever wondered what the difference is between a student-run law journal and a peer-reviewed law journal?  Most law journals at law schools today are edited and run entirely by students and have been for so long that we consider it the norm.  This, however, wasn’t always the case—nor is it the case in most other graduate and profession schools.  I spoke with one Cornell Law professor who wishes to remain anonymous but had previously pondered the possibility of establishing a peer-reviewed journal at Cornell. According to the professor, the first law journals were run by faculty and were peer-reviewed, meaning they had their facts verified by other legal scholars.  Though he was unsure when or exactly why the switch to student-edited journals came about, he was happy to share his thoughts regarding the relative pros and cons of each.

Start with the traditional, student-edited journal.  Clearly, the pros are that students are heavily involved in the entire production process, learning valuable new skills as they select and edit papers for publication.  Being on the staff of a journal sharpens students’ professional skills by enhancing their proficiency in editing and strengthening their legal writing, which will help them later in their careers.  However, students on a law journal (typically 2L’s and 3L’s) generally lack experience in legal scholarship, and as a result, the papers selected for publication tend to be long and provide only a general overview. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as the publications are often more accessible. A budding researcher looking for a good place to start learning about a subject would be well-advised to begin with  an excellent choice would be a well-written student note.

Student editors—no matter how skilled—are not an expert audience, so papers that deal with a specialized or unfamiliar area of law may not be published, despite being exceptionally influential or well written.  Or, some authors and legal academics suggest that students may be overly swayed by contextual factors, such as the author’s reputation, who the author cites, what law school the author is affiliated with, etc.  At some schools, an author needs a specific “connection” to the school to be published,  thus making it difficult for scholarship written by “outsiders” to gain access to that journal.  The professor that I spoke told me that Cornell’s journals are generally more independent than other schools and actually publish less faculty scholarship than is typical at most law schools.

Peer-reviewed journals, on the other hand, have several distinct advantages over those run by students.  They can be more specialized and deal with specific areas of law, so papers tend to be more concise and relevant to practitioners.  Furthermore, prior to publication each selected submission is reviewed and commented upon by a number of specialists in the relevant field.  The reviewers then send their comments to the original author, who can take their comments into account and work them into her paper before it is published.  This process lends greater credibility to peer-reviewed journals, and authors, receiving feedback from reviewers, benefit as well.  There are three distinct systems of review: open, single-blind, and double-blind.  In an open review, considered the most democratic type of review, both the author and reviewer know each other’s identities.  In a single-blind review, the reviewer knows who the author is, but not vice versa.  Finally, in a double-blind review, neither party knows the identity of the other.

There are some drawbacks to peer review, however.  The process can become tedious, and it takes a long time for a given paper to make it through the various stages of publication.  Also, in specialized areas of law, even supposedly single- or double-blind review may not be as anonymous as intended due to the small number of active scholars in the field.  Since 2004, Cornell has one such publication run by faculty, a double-blind journal called the Journal of Empirical Legal Research (JELS) that attempts to fill in some of the gaps in current legal scholarship.

Beyond entirely student-run and entirely faculty-run there is a third journal type: a sort of “hybrid” journal that is both student-run and peer-reviewed.  Students make the initial article selections, and after the initial cut the papers go to faculty for peer-review, where outside scholars can be recruited for review as well.  The professor I spoke to said that he had been approached by other schools’ student journals to review papers for publication due to his specialized expertise, so it is not uncommon to find this type of review even in student-edited journals.  Then, when the papers have been vetted by experts and the authors have received and incorporated the comments, the papers are returned to students who then handle the editing process.  Although a hybrid journal requires more faculty involvement than the norm, it certainly seems intriguing.  Some law schools have peer-reviewed law journals, but hybrid journals like the type I am suggesting are rare.  Maybe Cornell Law School would be a good place to start.  What do you think?

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