The Yale Law Journal has posted an interesting report entitled “Journal Releases Guidelines and Data on When To Submit Articles and Essays.” The basic empirical showing is that “the spring submissions cycle is increasingly front-loaded, with a growing percentage of pieces submitted in the first half of February.”
If you give an academic a cookie, or data, he’s likely to ask for more. Perhaps the most important sentence in the YLJ report is the most cryptic: “[O]f the dozen or so publication offers that the Journal makes in the spring cycle, historically a majority have been made in March or later.” Does “historically” mean to encompass only the last few years? And, do the March offers tend to result from mid- to late-February submissions? That information would shed light on whether the timing of a submission affects acceptance.
That said, the report does raise the possibility that early submissions may be disadvantaged. The report raises this point by noting that one “downside” of early submission is slower review. According to the report, “The front-loaded cycle places a significant strain on the Articles & Essays Committee.” This statement seems to assume that a “front-loaded cycle” is one in which most submissions are in February. While submission levels seem quite high in early February, they get even higher in mid to late February. So, to avoid the asserted rush, it would seem necessary to submit in March – by which point, other journals may have filled valuable spots.
A more plausible and interesting possibility is that early submissions are disadvantaged because novice editors are not only deluged with submissions but relatively risk averse. At the start of the process, editors may be holding out hope for The Perfect Article and feel afraid of recommending acceptance of pieces that their colleagues or academic reviewers will regard as rubbish. By contrast, late-cycle editors know what kind of article they like and have a better sense of what is left in the by-then dwindling pool of submissions. The idea that students editors might loosen up over time calls to mind discussions of the Supreme Court’s certiorari process: inexperienced Supreme Court clerks are often thought to be more afraid of messing up and, as a result, to be relatively averse to recommending certiorari. This parallel could be the subject of future research. (Hint: In a YLJ student note.)
Despite the report’s title, the main text of the YLJ report is careful to avoid taking any position on when is the “best” time to submit. This caution is wise for several reasons, including because authors are more interested in their odds of success with the law review world in general than with YLJ in particular. For instance, some authors might want to submit early to a few journals so that, if they are not accepted, they still have time to submit more widely later in the cycle. Reinforcing that trend, many journals are not open for submission nearly as early as YLJ. So it seems intuitive that authors might submit narrowly at the start and expand later. Doing so might come at a cost, however, in that it may reduce the possibility that offers of publication from lower-ranked journals could trigger expedited review at higher-ranked journals.
This leads to the question of why YLJ released the data that it has. I am sure that one major reason is that YLJ editors simply like transparency, helpfulness, and empirical rigor, and this data is a big step toward promoting all three in their current line of work. There is, however, a slightly more cynical possibility: the editors want to send a signal that will alter author behavior in a way that they find desirable. This report might accomplish that goal in at least two ways: it could smooth out the submissions cycle by discouraging submission in high-submission weeks, and it could encourage exclusive or at least more narrowly targeted submissions to YLJ and similar journals. Note again that exclusive submission is very good for the reviewing journal, since it can take its time to make an informed decision, but not necessarily good for the author, given the obvious opportunity costs associated with exclusivity. YLJ is especially sensitive to this concern because it is committed to a review process (recounted in the report) that is more time consuming than the process that many other journals engage in.
The YLJ report comes after Scholastica and others have recently released similar data in the hope of increasing the transparency of the law review process. This new information is useful not just for purposes of submitting to these journals, but also for determining how student-edited journals stack up against peer review, which may lack a submission-timing bias. I hope that YLJ’s laudable decision to release this data prompts other journals to do the same, or even better.
First posted on Prawfs.