The Right Coast

January 20, 2006
Goodbye and thanks for all the words
By Tom Smith

Rosa Brooks has started a bloggy discussion with this post. As we tend to, I feel I can add something to this.

First, it is quite true that most law review articles are read not at all, or only a few times. 40 some percent are never cited. Ever. Twenty percent of law review articles get about eighty percent of all the cites. If you write an article and it manages to get cited ten or twenty times, you are doing very well indeed. We don't have any way of knowing how many times an uncited article might have been read, but it figures it is not a lot.

Conversely, a few players tend to dominate the genre. They are the Stephen Kings and John Grishams of the law review realm. Everybody reads what they have to say Is it because what they have to say is all that wonderful, illuminating, insightful, brilliant, etc. etc.? Actually, no. Weirdly enough, by looking at the distribution of citation frequency, you can get a good idea of what dynamics produced the shape of the curve. To take an analogy, we all, especially law professors, are familiar with, especially during grading time, consider the bell curve. It is amazing in a way how students every year dutifully line themselves up in a bell curve. It's normal! Why is this? It turns out that performance on exams is a function of a number of different factors, such as how smart a student is, how hard he studies, how good he felt that day, and so on, which are independent, at least partially, of each other. The interaction of independent variables tends to produce a normal distribution.

Very different mechanisms tend to produce the long-tailed, power law like distributions that characterize citation frequency. There are quite a few possible mechanisms, but one of them is the "rich get richer" effect, which also works for "the famous get more famous." So, one thing that may well be going on with citations, is that everybody reads and cites Cass Sunstein's latest not only because they expect it to be good, but because he already has such a big reputation. Reputations compound upon themselves. Fame breeds more fame. Do the famous deserve to be more famous? That is hard to say. It is like the guy who makes some money at the beginning of a stock market rally and so becomes very rich. He gets rich while the guy who makes money at the end of the rally does not. Fair does not have a lot to do with it.

What this says to me is that, if you already have a big reputation in legal scholarship land, you should probably keep writing, because you will probably get cited even if you write about your dog Skippy. Perhaps not really, but close. With all due respect, I think this phenomenon helps explain such mysteries as the ongoing influence of Larry Tribe, who as far as I can tell, has not made much sense in a while. But then, I am not a constitutional lawyer; perhaps I am being unfair. On the other hand, if you write stuff, and it tends not to get cited, you are fighting against a strong current. It is more like trying to get a hit single than it is like building a house. It is not clear to me that such a person should continue to write law review articles that won't be cited and probably not much read. It does not mean the articles are not good, though they may well not be. A change of genre might indeed be a good idea. I am not at all sure why law professors should be paid to write stuff that will quickly disappear into the pile of dead papers. There must be a better way for them to contribute to the sum of legal knowledge. On the other hand, it happens everywhere, even in the hard sciences. Maybe they also serve who publish and are ignored, through some process that is not well understood. Maybe it makes them a more appreciative audience of the famous ones. Who knows.

Which leads to blogging. Why on earth not? If blogging can somehow undermine the tyranny of student edited law reviews, then viva la revolucion. If ever institutions were prestigious for being prestigious, it would have to include the leading student edited law reviews. They are, of course, proof that human institutions can be highly irrational, and prosper. Writing an article for publication in a student edited law review is like preparing a feast out of the Thanksgiving edition of Gourmet magazine, and then at the last moment inviting your teenager's pals to come on in and make any changes they would like. How about throwing some chocolate chips in the souffle? Wouldn't that butterflied lamb be even better with ketschup?

Internet publication is faster, and student editors cannot insist you incorporate bad ideas or add pointless footnotes. It can be a scholarly conversation that is more like conversation. Many points, moreover, deserve to be made, but do not merit treatment in a full dress article, at least not by the point maker.

Blawging is evolving. The RC is a frisky blog, with some serious stuff and some not so serious. Other blawgs are much more serious and probably more worth reading too, if not as fun as we. Law blogs will probably change into something else, at least some of them, that are more professinal and useful, and I hope, render the student edited law review biz increasingly irrelevant, like the Nightly News. I also hope that online, peer reviewed journals prosper; whether they will or not, I don't know.

Be all that as it may, the blogosphere is perfect for law professors. It is like a giant faculty lunch table, except that you cannot be talked over, you can make your points as carefully or not, as you like, you cannot be stopped from gathering some sort of audience, you do not have to endure the scorn of late 1940's liberalism, 1990's post modernism, or whatever other historical curiosity you happen to find yourself seated next to, and you only have to listen to what seems interesting. It's like being a law professor, only more fun.