Count Me Among the 10%

Citechecking Just Got A Little Easier reports that a majority of the major law reviews have agreed in principle to try to limit articles to 70 pages after a web-based survey of law faculty found that 90% of the almost 800 responding faculty “agreed that articles are too long”.

I think the survey, which I filled out, was a very blunt instrument and this conclusion verges on a mistake. While it's true that some, maybe even many, law review articles are needlessly long — most often because they reinvent the wheel for the benefit of student editors — I think it's also true that some of the best articles are long for a reason: they describe something complex or genuinely new.

So, while I agree that one might wish to have a presumption that articles should be shorter than they are, I think a blanket rule of this nature would be unwise. (Of course, having written this and this and this, I would say that….)

I'm glad the law reviews haven't committed themselves to an iron-clad rule, but I'm worried that this will become an insurmountable bar in practice — especially for more junior scholars, who are the ones most likely to have something genuinely new to say, and who have the most need to say it in a way that is fully footnoted thus preemptively insulating themselves from certain types of criticism by their more senior colleagues (and believe me, I've been there).

Full text of the statement from the flagship law reviews at Columbia, Cornell, Duke, Georgetown, Harvard, Michigan, Stanford, Texas, U. Penn., Virginia, and Yale follows.

In mid-December, the Harvard Law Review conducted a nationwide survey of law faculty regarding the state of legal scholarship. Nearly 800 professors completed the survey and submitted their feedback. Complete tabulations of the survey will soon be available on the web. Importantly, the survey documented one particularly unambiguous view shared by faculty and law review editors alike: the length of articles has become excessive. In fact, nearly 90% of faculty agreed that articles are too long. In addition, dozens of respondents submitted specific comments, identifying the dangers of this trend and calling for action. Survey respondents suggested that shorter articles would enhance the quality of legal scholarship, shorten and improve the editing process, and render articles more effective and easier to read.

The law reviews listed above are very grateful for the constructive feedback and wish to acknowledge a role in contributing to this unfortunate trend in legal scholarship. To the extent that the article selection or editing process encourages the submission and publication of lengthier articles, each of the law reviews listed above is committed to rethinking and modifying its policies as necessary. Indeed, some have already done so. The vast majority of law review articles can effectively convey their arguments within the range of 40-70 law review pages, and any impression that law reviews only publish or strongly prefer lengthier articles should be dispelled. Ultimately, individual law reviews will have to decide for themselves how best to resolve these concerns. Please know, however, that editors across the country are cognizant of the troubling trend toward longer articles and are actively exploring how to address it.

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4 Responses to Count Me Among the 10%

  1. Chris says:

    In criminology (my discipline), journals sometimes establish arbitrary page limits. It’s really like a Procrustean bed, as you described.

    I’m not sure that polling the readers is necessarily the best thing, as readers tend to read articles through the lens of their own unique interests and backgrounds and tend to disregard as unnecessary parts of manuscripts that don’t articulate with their interests or cover background they already know.

    My opinion as a researcher/editor/manuscript reviewer is that the issue of length is really a task better left to the manuscript referees, with due attention to the logistical requirements of the publisher (who set limits on the number of pages per issue). As subject matter experts, referees are better situated to discern whether a manuscript is needlessly long. Why not ask the reviewers, as part of their review, to identify areas or portions of the manuscript they feel is unnecessary or bloated?

  2. Believe it or not, most law journals are not peer reviewed, but edited by law students who may, but probably don’t, consult the local faculty.

  3. C.E. Petit says:

    Looking only at the length of the articles is itself myopic. One problem that I see is that law reviews overemphasize having authority to support every single tiny point made in the article–in other words, placing a premium on proving that one DOESN’T have anything original (or at least very much original) to say. That’s fine when reviewing the state of literature in an area, or comparing a wide range of materials to discern a trend. It’s not so good when, for example, parsing a statute, in which a paragraph trying to show a particular emphasis has fifteen footnotes to various subsubsubsubsections of a statute that could just as well have been quoted.

    Now that I think about it, that describes pretty much all of legal writing…


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