Thanks in Authors’ Footnotes

Law review article authors routinely thank lots of people in their thank-you notes (generally the introductory footnote that also mentions the author’s affiliation, e-mail address, and the like). I’ve often heard the argument that authors try to use these thank-you’s to impress readers, and especially law review editors: Citing lots of Big Guns in the thank you note, the theory goes, allows the author to shine in the Big Guns’ reflected glory, on the theory that if the author thanks Akhil Amar, Charles Fried, and so on, he must be at least a Medium-Sized Gun himself.

As I mentioned in a post back in 2007, I’ve always been skeptical of that theory, which strikes me as unduly cynical. I have nothing against cynicism if it’s justified, but here I don’t see much of a justification.

A thank-you note doesn’t show that the thanked people read the article, or even that they know the author well. If you go up to Amar or Fried or nearly any other scholar at a conference and ask them a brief question related to your research interests, they’re likely to answer it: It’s the polite thing to do, plus most scholars are genuinely interested in answering listeners’ questions, and flattered to be asked for advice. And if the answer is helpful, then the author could (and even should) thank the answerer for the help.

So I suspect that the thank-you note generally reflects nothing other than that the author has gotten some small help from the person being thanked. Readers — including law review articles editors who are selecting articles — know that, and authors know that readers know that, so there is little reason to think that authors are including the thank-you’s to impress readers. Instead, the main reasons for the long thank-you’s are (1) it’s the right thing to do, (2) if you don’t thank someone, you risk their being annoyed by the absence of thanks (and even if you think they didn’t help you much, they may well remember the matter differently), and (3) even if the help was minor, it’s best to err on the side of caution.

At the same time, that’s just my perspective; perhaps some people are trying to impress law review editors, and perhaps this tactic is indeed effective. So let me ask any current or former law review articles editors in the audience: To your knowledge, have you found that the caliber of the people in the thank-you note has affected your or your colleagues’ judgment about the paper?

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