Ranking law journals

ARC logo, via their site.The Australian Research Council has recently completed its consultation process to develop ranking tables for journals. Controversy led to the Humanities and Creative Arts list being unavailable for a time after publication, but it seems to be available now. The ranking is in four divisions: A*, A, B and C (and there is a nice explanation here). However unfortunate such a development may be, given the way in which university life is developing internationally, it is inevitable that such tables will be developed and will have an impact.

The law journals have been extracted from the humanities list by the ever-industrious Simon Fodden on Slaw. Whether or not the ARC approach is misconceived or it got its characteriations of Australian law journals wrong, all of the Irish journals it mentions (and a good list of them, including searchable tables of contents, is available here) – including the Dublin University Law Journal and the Irish Jurist – are in division C, which is the ‘bottom 50%’ division; whilst the Northern Ireland Legal Quarterly is in division A, which is the ‘top 20% to top 5%’ division. I’m not sure that there is such a great difference between the DULJ and the Jurist on the one hand, and the NILQ on the other (though I would say that, wouldn’t I?). The reality is not that the NILQ meets the A-list criteria where the DULJ and the Jurist do not, but that, whilst all three do meet the criteria, this is more easily ascertained for the NILQ than for the DULJ and the Jurist.

In any event, leaving aside the ARC’s reasons for such rankings, and their intrinsic merits, I have two concerns. First, what about mischaracterisations, where the ARC has got its facts wrong, misapplied its own criteria, and entered a journal into an inappropriate division? The ARC’s promise to revise the journal lists in the future through a similar consultation process is insufficient to deal with current errors of fact. Second, what are the non-ARC consequences of such lists? As with university (or Law School) rankings, do they begin to skew journals to meet the ARC criteria, or to influence authors when they are thinking about placements?

This might or might not be a bad thing; it is what happens all the time in US Law Schools, so much so that there’s a well-recognised online system for submitting articles to journals. Indeed, the Law Library at the University of Washington and Lee School of Law not only maintains a widely-consulted site on Law Journals: Submissions and Ranking, but it has also very recently started up what seems to me to be a more focussed online submission process (in particular, it differs from the existing US law journal model, and resembles how journals in other jurisdictions and in other disciplines operate, by processing exclusive or sequential rather than simultaneous submissions). The whole issue is covered clearly in this Harvard Law School Library guide and comprehensively in this book. The system is not without its critics, and may come to be superceded by an SSRN-type database (much as is occurring in maths and sciences with arXiv). (In the meantime, for some light relief, here’s an entertaining blogpost on the law review submission and arbitrage process, and here’s a lighthearted law review article on the same topic).

However, whether about ARC mischaracterisation or journal/author behaviour, my concern is the same in both cases: that the list takes on a life of its own independent of the ARC’s reasons, and becomes self-perpetuating, to the detriment of the authors and the journals alike. If those objections are not properly answered, then we should all be very careful in making decisions based upon these rankings. On the other hand, if they can be be properly answered, then this could turn out to be a very fruitful exercise indeed for all concerned. As to that – as I commented at the end of my previous post – we shall have to wait and see.