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When will law reviews make the transition from print-driven to digitally-driven publishing models? Will they ever?

With most legal scholars now conducting the bulk of their research online, questions surrounding the necessity and sustainability of printed law reviews have been cropping up in recent years. However, despite the transition to digital research practices, as well as dipping library subscription numbers at many law reviews, print remains the predominant publishing format. Some notable digital pivots aside, like Duke University’s decision to move six of its law journals totally online in 2013, most law reviews approach online publishing as an add on to print — with many reserving digital formats for select articles or supplements.

In a 2016 article published in Touro Law Review titled, “The Future of Law Reviews: Online-Only Journals,” Katharine Schaffzin, professor at the University of Memphis Humphreys School of Law, argues that law reviews should move to online-only publishing. According to Schaffzin, publishing law reviews online would help address budgetary challenges that law schools face and also create new opportunities to improve article formats and accessibility. Schaffzin’s arguments echo those made in the 2009 Durham Statement on Open Access to Legal Scholarship, which calls for law reviews to transition to online-only publishing models and make all articles open access. Library directors at multiple top US law schools signed The Durham Statement, including Duke, Stanford, and Harvard University.

While law review printing has persisted up to this point, in large part due to perceived prestige, as journals in other scholarly disciplines continue to move fully online, it seems that change may be imminent in the law review sphere as well. In this blog post, we explore some of the potential benefits of law reviews embracing fully online publishing models, as expressed by Schaffzin and the Durham Statement signatories.

Cost savings contributing to law review sustainability

One of the most compelling cases for the transition to online-only law review publishing is the potential for significant cost savings at many law schools, by eliminating both printing and library subscription expenses. In her article, Schaffzin points to fluctuating law school enrollments and overall budgetary challenges in recent years as a reason to revisit the sustainability of printing law reviews. She outlines the cost of producing and disseminating printed journals, explaining that, on average, it can be upwards of $40,000 a year. While subscriptions and royalties from research databases such as Westlaw cover some of these costs, the revenues tend to fall short, leaving many law schools with law review deficits as high as $16,000 a year.

At the same time, Schaffzin points to the fact that many law reviews have been seeing declining subscriptions in recent years. “The costs of publication and mailing are compounded by the fact that subscriptions to traditional law reviews are decreasing, as law libraries themselves cut their budgets and address physical space constraints by cutting back on subscriptions and hard-copy materials in their collections,” said Schaffzin. “The future law review format must take into consideration the budgetary structure of the modern law school.”

Since the advent of mixed print and digital law review publishing, via online versions of articles or supplements, concerns have also been raised about law schools shouldering dual law review printing and online publishing costs unnecessarily. The Durham Statement reads, “It is increasingly uneconomical to keep two systems afloat simultaneously. The presumption of the need for redundant printed journals adds costs to library budgets, takes up physical space in libraries pressed for space, and has a deleterious effect on the environment.” The Durham Statement signatories argued that, rather than maintaining full print runs, law reviews could transition to making printed issues available on-demand calling for “stable digital formats” that would make the need for printing minimal.

Opportunities for more rapid and flexible research dissemination

In addition to cost savings, online-only publishing also presents the opportunity to make legal scholarship available more quickly and in formats more conducive to today’s digital readers. At the time of the Durham Statement, the signatories acknowledged that “researchers – whether students, faculty, or practitioners – now access legal information of all sorts through digital formats much more frequently than in printed formats. Print copies of law journals and other forms of legal scholarship are slower to arrive than the online digital versions and lack the flexibility needed by 21st-century scholars.”

In her article, Schaffzin points to the potential to break away from printing constraints, such as article word limits, as a primary benefit of online-only publishing. “Journals can use the limitless online space to publish original traditional articles, as well as responses to those articles,” she said. “Law reviews can increase the number of essays published, without any added expense or space concerns. Journals can offer online-only symposia. The online-only platform allows law reviews to expand creatively without the limits of the traditional publisher.”

In addition to the potential for more flexible article formats, online-only publishing also presents the opportunity to make articles available more quickly. For example, journals in many other academic disciplines have begun embracing rolling publishing models online, wherein accepted articles are published as they’re ready. Articles published on a rolling basis can still be compiled into journal issues retroactively for organizational and citation purposes.

Other potential benefits of online-only publishing include the opportunity to channel more law review resources towards expanding digital article discovery and usage potential. For example, law reviews could focus more on improving their website browsing experiences and producing articles in mobile-friendly and search-optimized formats such as responsive HTML. For legal scholars vying to have their works cited, publishing in online-only law reviews with more expansive reach could one day surpass the perceived prestige of print.

Finally, another benefit of law reviews moving to online-only publishing is the potential to make all articles fully open access, or free to read upon publication. This is a cornerstone of the Durham Statement, which reads “potentially most importantly, a move toward digital files as the preferred format for legal scholarship will increase access to legal information and knowledge not only to those inside the legal academy and in practice, but to scholars in other disciplines and to international audiences, many of whom do not now have access either to print journals or to commercial databases.”

Most law reviews have embraced open access publishing for their current digital content, so the concept of making articles free to read is not unfamiliar. As noted by Schaffzin, law reviews also have less of a need for subscription revenues than other types of academic journals. “Law review editors are unpaid students, and authors are not paid for their content, so the only significant expense associated with operating a law review is hard copy publication,” said Schaffzin. Given the voluntary nature of law review editorships and authorships, the move to fully OA publishing would be less of an apparent leap for law reviews than journals in other scholarly disciplines.

Would the role of law reviews change online?

One concern for law review editors and legal scholars, as noted by Schaffzin, is if and how the place of law reviews might change if they were to go fully digital. She argues that the traditional law review, whether online or in print, will remain a necessary pillar of legal scholarship. “Traditional law reviews remain relevant as the best forum in which to comprehensively address more complex legal issues,” she said. “To the extent that courts cite law journals in their opinions, they seem to rely on traditional law reviews, rather than online companions or blog posts.”

Schaffzin added that faculty also tend to prefer publishing in traditional law reviews when building out their CVs because long-form articles demonstrate greater subject-area expertise than short pieces. To maintain their scholarly influence and legitimacy, Schaffzin said, in addition to maintaining editorial rigor, online law reviews should make sure all of their articles are searchable on Westlaw, LexisNexis, and other reputable indexes.

In her article, Schaffzin said she believes that traditional law reviews will retain their prestige online while reaping the benefits of their digital counterparts. “Online publication will always result in faster publication and lower expense because the process avoids an actual publisher,” she said. At the same time, Schaffzin said she sees a clear role for online supplements in the future of legal writing. “Online law review companions and blog posts offer an opportunity to comment on legal issues closer to real-time. This is important for emerging legal issues, as well as arguments responsive to pieces published in more traditional law reviews.”

A mounting case for online-only publishing

Concluding her article on the future of online-only law review publishing, Schaffzin asks the reader, “what are we waiting for?”. With the opportunity to continue to produce quality legal scholarship and to make it available more quickly, affordably, and accessibly the benefits of online-only publishing could far outway any print losses. Today, the question seems to be not whether law reviews can successfully move to online-only publishing, but if and when editors and authors will be ready to embrace a fully digital transition.