Monday, March 1, 2010

Peer Review

A surprising new trend at law reviews: A couple of my colleagues have received requests this past week to conduct peer review of articles proposed for publication at other schools' law reviews.

How long has this been going on? I've routinely received such requests from my own school's law review (GW). But I've never received such a request from another school's review, or even heard about anyone else's receiving such a request. Maybe it's been going on for years and I just didn't know, but I would have expected to hear about it.

Is it a good thing? On the one hand, law review scholarship is crying out for peer review. That's the method used in other disciplines. Scholarly legal publication is exceptional in that it doesn't use peer review -- and the publication decisions are made by students, to boot. So why not institute peer review? Good for those students who have recognized that they could benefit from faculty input.

On the other hand, there are at least some perils to instituting peer review in a discipline that isn't used to it. There's at least some potential for strategic behavior and conflict of interest. If I were asked by Harvard or Yale for comments on someone else's piece, of course I would give my honest opinion, but is it not at least a potential problem if I have submissions pending there myself -- as I usually do? Then I have an interest in having other pieces get rejected. (This isn't such a problem when a law review seeks advice from faculty at the same school, because most faculty can get published in their own school's review when they want to and so have less of an interest in whether other authors get published there.)

Presumably, disciplines that regularly conduct peer review have thought about these problems and have worked them out somehow. Maybe they have an honor code for peer review? Also, there's probably less potential for conflict in other disciplines, because they don't have multiple simultaneous submission. In law, everyone submits their pieces to all the top journals every year, so most everyone always has something pending everywhere.

As I say, I would submit honest comments anyway, as I expect most law professors would, but the problem is at least something to think about. Students deserve kudos for seeking faculty input on publication decisions, but at the same time I'm surprised that there hasn't been more academy-wide discussion and vetting of this new trend.


Anonymous said...

When I served as Senior Articles Editor for my school's law review a few years back, I often reached out to faculty at other schools for feedback on submissions we'd received -- particularly if the article in question was in some esoteric field in which my own school's faculty didn't have expertise. While we knew there was a danger that we'd get a biased view from a professor interested in the same area, I generally found the exercise helpful. My hope was also that by reaching out to experts in the field, we'd show the author that we were doing our homework and taking a genuine interest in their article.

Jon Siegel said...

Interesting. I guess this has been going on for longer than I knew.

Parker51 said...

Other academic disciplines actually do seem to be worried about conflict-of-interest issues in contemporary peer review, with no easy answers. See this article from a prominent physicist: