Group of Law Reviews Adopts Position Against Exploding Offers: Will Other Journals Follow?

A group of law reviews — including the main law reviews at Harvard, Yale, Chicago, and Stanford — have announced that they are opposed to exploding offers of publication. The journals “commit, effective immediately, to give every author at least seven days to decide whether to accept any offer of publication.” In the letter to explaining the decision, they write:

This decision stems from the recognition that what once seemed an effective strategy for any one of us has in fact had a highly corrosive effect on all of us. Journals have responded to the prospect of exploding offers elsewhere by speeding up their own processes: rapidly winnowing down submissions, quickly holding articles committee votes, and, in the case of many journals, only occasionally consulting scholars in the field regarding an article’s novelty or contribution.

This expedited review has inevitably favored established authors, popular topics, and broad claims at the expense of originality and merit. It has led many law journals to establish a twotrack process for article review: a fast track for widely recognized authors, whose submissions are more likely to elicit exploding offers; a slower track for younger authors and authors who teach at lower-ranked institutions. Many deserving pieces in the latter category never get to the front of the line.

I agree that shorter windows are troubling because they favor established authors and reliance on proxies. Journals with less time to assess the merits of an individual article are more likely to rely on proxies (like rank of school or prior publication record) that make it harder for less-established authors with great articles to have that excellence recognized. If longer windows lead to more careful and less hurried decisionmaking, that will push the article selection process in the direction of the meritocracy that it aspires to be. That’s a very good thing.

At the same time, I hope I’m not being ungenerous in wondering how much of the new policy is about principle and how much of it is about self-interest. For better or worse, the current system of offer-windows and expedites is based on the premise that there is a hierarchy of journals. Some journals are higher on the pecking order and some are lower. Looking at the list of journals that has signed on, the list seems to consist of four of the Top 5 or so journals, a few top 30 or so journals, and some secondary journals at Harvard and Yale. For the most part, at least as far as I know, these journals have not had particularly short offer windows. The very top-ranked journals don’t need to worry as much about offer windows. In the hierarchy, they’re at the top: there’s really no place to go from them. I don’t know if Harvard or Yale even have formal offer windows. In addition, the journals in the Top 30 or so and below mostly seem to have longer windows, although there are exceptions. So I don’t know how many journals in the list are really changing their policy, as compared to formalizing a preexisting practice.

Notably missing from the list is the set of journals in the Top 25 or so that are known for particularly short windows. Some of those journals have taken to adopting very short time windows to keep the very top-ranked journals from taking articles expedited from elsewhere. My sense is that short windows has been particularly to the disadvantage of the Harvard Law Review: The HLR takes the longest to decide, as it has the most extensive pre-acceptance review process. As a result, the HLR often has to pass simply for reasons of time when another Top 10 journal makes an offer with a 24-hour offer window. It’s understandable why the HLR would take a stand against such short offers, given that it’s at the top of the pecking order and takes the longest to decide.

So the really interesting question is whether the journals with short windows will agree to change their policies. In other words, will this policy signal a real shift? Or are the journals mostly going to align with their perceived self-interest? As always, stay tuned.

UPDATE: I have amended the post shortly after writing it to expand a few sections.