Law Review Insights from an Unwitting Source

A story about some editors from the Harvard Human Rights Journal shutting out a potential applicant after expressing concerns about his conservative leanings made the blog rounds recently after their email listserve was made public for a short time. While some (in an impressive display of naivete) expressed surprise that law students working on the Harvard Human Rights Journal were not willing to entertain a submission from a notably conservative contributor, I think the story is much more interesting for the insights it provides into the journal selection process. From ATL:

"The HHRJ emails shed light on how law review editors go about deciding which articles to publish. They provide a fascinating look behind the curtain of the law review article selection process. I’ll discuss the most interesting messages here. ...
Law professors often complain about the so-called “letterhead effect.” As Professor Paul Caron explains the theory, “student law review editors faced with a deluge of submissions inevitably use an author’s school as a screening tool in selecting which articles to take a serious look at.” They use pedigree as a proxy for quality, instead of undertaking an independent assessment of the article’s merits.
Professors and law review editors debate the magnitude of the letterhead effect. This email provides support for the effect’s existence and its significance:
Reputation. Without sounding too snobby, [Author B] is not particularly well established as an academic. It’s not a big name school, he’s been a professor since 2005 so it’s that awkward middle ground where he’s not really new and upcoming but he’s not really a veteran, and he’s only published five articles (incidentally, the same number of articles that [Author C] has published in the last 24 months).
In short, school reputation matters to law review editors. And so does the expected citation count:
Ranking. I just don’t see something this narrative/theoretical getting cited very much. Ultimately citations matter a lot to us, and even though I agree with [Editor Y] that there might be lots of interest, that doesn’t necessarily translate to better rankings.
Again, this isn’t shocking, in a metrics- and data-driven world. But it’s something that authors should
keep in mind when submitting to law reviews: Will this piece rack up the citations?..."
At the same time as I knock some for expressing surprise at the anti-conservative leanings of these editors, maybe some would knock me for thinking the above information is novel in any way. Well, in response I would say that I don't think it is novel, that I think this is how the majority of journals (at least law journals) work. It is simply that I find it interesting to see it in writing - and think that it might be useful information for anyone looking to submit any time soon.
While it may be useful information (particularly for those with the 'right' letterhead), there are some who might find it to be discouraging information. But, there are nonetheless some lessons here for those who are a little light on the requisite bona fides. Maybe they should partner with a more established professor? Maybe they should try to write on a particularly timely idea in a novel way. Maybe they should just take their lumps in lower-rated journals for a few publication cycles. I will try to keep these lessons in mind as I move forward with submitting the online currency paper...

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