Image Credit: Robin Worrall on Unsplash
Image Credit: Robin Worrall on Unsplash

Nowadays, virtually every law review has an online presence. But, in the world of legal scholarship, print-based publishing practices still prevail.

Consider this — most law reviews wait to publish articles in issues, even though there’s technically no need to do so online, and then only make them available as PDFs, the canonical publishing format for print. Such early publishing vestiges may be traditional. But they’re no longer terribly practical, at least for law reviews and authors that want their articles to be as timely and widely discoverable as possible.

For law reviews and their authors to harness all the content optimization possibilities of the modern web, it’s essential to start thinking and operating digital first. By that, we mean prioritizing online article outputs first with print as a derivative (if they choose to print at all). And there are already some publications leading the way.

In this blog post, we’re rounding up five digital-first publishing practices law reviews are starting to implement (with examples) and the benefits for editors and authors. Let’s get to it!

1. Mobile-friendly article pages for better SEO and reading on the go

Did you know that as of September 2020, Google started implementing mobile-first indexing for all web pages? That means the leading browser now favors mobile-friendly content in its indexing and search rankings.

For law review e-boards and submitting authors, this is significant. Publication websites that aren’t responsive (i.e., pages dynamically resize to fit different devices/screens) will have a tougher time showing up in search results. As mobile-first search becomes the norm, it’s imperative that law reviews start making plans to move to a responsive website design if they haven’t already. Authors will also want to factor law reviews’ mobile-friendliness into their submission choices.

Editors and authors can check whether law review websites are mobile-friendly by using Google’s free mobile-friendly test.

A word to the wise, articles published as hosted PDFs will almost certainly not pass the mobile-friendly test unless the PDFs are embedded in responsive HTML pages in a PDF reader, such as this example from Houston Law Review, hosted via Scholastica. Be sure to run individual article pages through the tester to ensure all content is mobile friendly, not just informational pages. After all, having articles show up in online searches is most important!

Beyond SEO benefits, when law review pages are mobile-friendly, they also offer a better reading experience. Look around any waiting room or public transit space, and you’ll be sure to see people scrolling through content on their phones. We live in an increasingly remote world, and people need and expect to access information on the go, something editors and authors should be attuned to.

Among examples of law reviews with mobile-friendly website designs and article pages are Houston Law Review, as mentioned above, and Harvard Law Review.

2. HTML articles with machine-readable metadata to hit top search results

For articles to make it to the top of search engine results, they also need to be published in formats search-engine crawlers (i.e., computer bots that systematically scan the web for new/updated content and index it) can parse.

Crawlers can’t read text — at least, not yet. To “understand” content, they rely on metadata, or sets of data that provide descriptive information about a piece of content, available in machine-readable markup languages (a.k.a. computer code). Signals of content relevance, like embedded links, also help with search engine rankings.

Let’s break it down, starting with machine-readable metadata. Google and other search engines look for metadata in the code of article pages to determine what they’re about — specifically, HTML metatags. HTML metatags help search engines know what to return in search results, so it’s essential that publications have at least basic metadata for article titles, author name(s), and keywords! This is another reason why law reviews should host all articles on dedicated HTML web pages, whether as full-text HTML or in an embedded PDF reader.

Submitting authors can quickly get a sense of a law review’s level of search engine optimization based on whether its articles are published on HTML pages or just linked PDFs. The latter will be less likely to show up in search.

Content management systems like WordPress and Scholastica’s publishing platform can help here. For example, WordPress offers SEO plugins or website code editing options to add HTML metatags to content, and Scholastica’s publishing platform automatically generates HTML metadata for all published articles.

Another way law reviews can increase the likelihood of their content showing up online that authors should look for is embedding relevant links in the body of articles, namely for references. As discussed in “3 Areas of digital publishing all law reviews should prioritize,” when an article has linked references, it helps search engines understand what other content it connects to so they can more easily serve it up in related searches. Law reviews can embed links in PDF or HTML articles. However, publishing full-text HTML will yield the best results as PDF links generally don’t have the same level of domain authority.

In addition to Capital University Law Review, editors and authors can look to Harvard Law Review and Stanford Law Review as examples of publications with machine-readable HTML articles and embedded reference links.

Publishing articles in PDF and HTML doesn’t have to mean double the content creation/formatting work, either. Single-source article production options, like Scholastica’s digital-first production service, can simultaneously produce PDF and HTML article files from a single file. At Scholastica, we generate PDFs and HTML straight from original unformatted Word documents.

3. Google Scholar indexing for maximum discoverability

After implementing the basic SEO best practices above, law reviews looking to level up their online discoverability can go a step further by indexing all of their articles in Google Scholar. According to the 2021 “How Readers Discover Content in Scholarly Publications” report Google Scholar is the top academic search engine globally.

Editors and authors can check if a law review’s articles are in Google Scholar by searching the law review URL (e.g., www.examplejournal.com) in scholar.google.com.

A common misconception about Google Scholar is that it automatically indexes all scholarly content, which is not the case. Publications have to ensure their websites follow specific indexing inclusion guidelines and become known as a “trusted source” to be eligible for Google Scholar indexing.

Law reviews looking to get indexed in Google Scholar without taking on these technical steps can move to a hosting provider that offers automatic Google Scholar indexing, such as Scholastica’s publishing platform, like Houston Law Review.

4. Rolling publishing models to make new articles available sooner

Another step law reviews can take to become more digital-first, which benefits search engines and human readers, is adopting a rolling publishing model, wherein accepted articles are published as they’re ready. Articles published on a rolling basis can still be compiled into issues/volumes retroactively for organizational and citation purposes.

Think about it: while publishing law reviews as issues was necessary for printing — as it wouldn’t be practical to print articles individually — in online publishing, that wait time is usually self-imposed.

The benefits of rolling publishing are twofold. First, it’s a way for law reviews and authors to get scholarship out into the world sooner, especially research on timely topics that could influence public policy or court proceedings. Second, publishing content more frequently can help improve a law review’s search rankings. Browsers like Google favor fresh content and index law review sites more often when they publish new articles regularly.

While rolling publishing has become commons practice in many academic disciplines, it’s yet to be widely adopted in the world of law review publishing. However, some law reviews have online components that they accept and publish rolling submissions for, such as de.novo Cardozo Law Review’s online companion journal.

Finally, with most legal scholars conducting the bulk of their research online, some law reviews are taking the leap to online-only publishing. Katharine Schaffzin, professor at the University of Memphis Humphreys School of Law, made the argument that all law reviews should start going totally digital in a 2016 article published in Touro Law Review titled, “The Future of Law Reviews: Online-Only Journals.” Schaffzin cited tight printing budgets and decreasing subscription numbers as primary reasons to move online only, noting that added benefits for editors and authors could include opportunities to improve article formats and accessibility.

Examples of law reviews moving to online-only include Duke University’s decision to make six of its journals totally digital in 2013. Duke’s journals are also open access, or free to read, in line with 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.

While digital-only law reviews are few and far between, many journals are making some or a portion of their articles freely available online in addition to printing issues. Authors can expand access to their research by seeking to publish in law reviews that offer online publishing options or that allow preprint posting via SSRN or an equivalent.

Putting it all together

As the world becomes more digitally driven, law reviews are starting to follow suit to keep up with current research practices and publish articles sooner. For editors and authors looking to expand the discoverability and accessibility of legal scholarship, moving to digital-first publishing offers countless possibilities.

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