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The Business of Law Reviews

Even articles that have criticized the institution of the law review tend to note some of the benefits of law reviews such as signaling quality students to employers, imparting rigor to the thought and writing of students via the editing process, and enhancing a law school’s competitiveness. Such functions are the inefficient by-products of law reviews. The core business of law reviews—at least prior to recent years—seems to have been one of filtering article quality toward more or less prestigious journals, distributing subsidized funding throughout the industry, and disseminating for access and archival storage the printed copies of articles. Although filtering via the mechanism of reputation is an interesting one, the focus here is on law review economics and the industry’s movement away from print copies.

Plainly, there is a measure of altruism in the publication of law reviews. The self-interest of law schools, authors, and editors is tempered by their perception of a public good. But unavoidably, economics is a powerful force. The economics of legal periodical publishing is heavily influenced by the relentless pressure toward electronic publishing, impacting higher-priced commercial publishers (who aim to sustain profits), subsidized law reviews (which aim not to be a drain on their supporting institutions), and open access publishers (who struggle with the issue of who will pay for free access to journals). Although I take it as given that in a few years we will see most new legal academic articles freely available online in their “post-print” final format, the path to that end is not clear. What is clear is that authors and readers drive the market, and publishers must find an economic model between the two, facilitating more open access.

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