Why Law Reviews Should Stop Publishing in Hard Copy
None of them publish in hard copy, and none think that hurts their perceived authority. They’re right. It’s hard to believe any judge will think less of a Revenue Ruling because – as of last week – the Bulletin is only published online.
The “death of hard copy” has become a cliché, everywhere but law reviews. Even though fewer and fewer people (and institutions) subscribe to paper law reviews, most reviews continue to churn out hard copy. And I bet that many schools spend a significant amount of money subsidizing the production of their publications (especially their secondary journals which likely have even lower subscription rates). I suspect that that many of the remaining purchasers of hard copy are themselves law schools. For instance, the Virginia Law Review has approximately 400 paid subscribers – how many of those are law school libraries?
When was the last time you picked up a bound volume of a law review? Or snail-mailed someone an old-school reprint rather than emailing a PDF? When did you last pull the actual print issue off the library shelf instead of using WestLaw, Lexis, HeinOnline, or SSRN?
It’s time for law reviews to stop publishing paper. By all means, they should continue cite-checking (a topic for another day), proofreading, and formatting their articles. But once a final draft is posted on the review’s website as a PDF, that should be the end of the ballgame. If a reader wants a hard copy, she can print it out herself.
There are two major advantages to stopping paper publication:
First, cost. Insofar as law schools are subsidizing hard copy, that’s money that could go to other, better activities, like financial aid. Law school libraries should also stop buying hard copies that no one reads. They’re throwing good money out the window.
Second, students’ time. Getting an article from finished PDF to the printed and bound stage involves quite a bit of work (at least it did several years ago when I was an articles editor – thankfully a job our managing editors had to take care of). The students aren’t learning any useful law-related skills when they working with the printer. That’s time wasted.
My guess is that, because law reviews are risk averse and have relatively short horizons, this change won’t happen until a major flagship law review announces it will no longer publish in hard copy. But when that happens (and I think it’s a matter of when, not if), there will be a very quick domino effect as other journals recognize that there is no longer a reputational hit for failing to smear ink on dead trees.
It’s time for the law reviews to recognize that they live in a PDF world; we’re just writing in it.