Paul L. Caron

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Dorf: A Game Theory Approach to Law Review Submissions -- A Two-Wave Strategy

Dorf on Law, Game Theory of Law Journal Deadlines, by Michael C. Dorf (Cornell):

A little over a year ago, I posted on the lessons I had gleaned from my experience in a 3-on-3 basketball tournament as they applied to the game theory of law journal submissions.  I concluded that, contrary to conventional wisdom, the optimal time to submit an article on spec for a law journal is not immediately upon the journal's opening for submissions in a given cycle, but about three weeks into the cycle--at least so long as most others are still following the conventional wisdom.  In this year's follow-up, I want to report on an interesting development in the world of student-edited journals. ...

Recall that student-edited law reviews permit multiple simultaneous submissions, but the "price" they charge for doing so is giving authors a relatively short period of time to accept or reject an offer of publication. ...

Now for the new development. At the end of last spring's submissions cycle, a number of law journals announced a new policy under which each of the agreeing parties will give authors seven days to decide whether to accept or reject an offer.  I wasn't paying attention to the adoption of this policy last year, when it was noted on Balkinization but, so far as I can tell, was not analyzed by anyone in any serious way.  Let me see whether I can shed any light on what is really going on. The policy announcement (quite appropriately) decries "exploding offers" but I suspect that there is a bit less altruism here than at first meets the eye.  We can see why by examining the signatories.  Here is the complete list of the parties to the agreement (thus far):

  • Boston University Law Review
  • Harvard Law Review
  • Minnesota Law Review
  • Stanford Law Review
  • University of Chicago Law Review
  • William and Mary Law Review
  • Yale Law Journal
  • Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review
  • Harvard Environmental Law Review
  • Harvard Human Rights Journal
  • Harvard International Law Journal
  • Harvard Journal on Law and Gender
  • Harvard Journal on Legislation
  • Harvard Latino Law Review
  • Harvard Law and Policy Review
  • Yale Journal of Law and Feminism

Notice that these journals fall into three distinct categories: (1) First-tier flagship journals; (2) Three good-but-not-top-15 journals; and (3) eight specialty journals at Harvard and one at Yale. ...

Under the new regime, a sensible submission strategy is to send your draft out in two waves.  Begin by sending it to all of the flagship journals on the list plus whichever of the specialty journals is appropriate for your subject matter.    If a month or so goes by and you have gotten no offers from any of these journals, you can then send your draft out to all of the journals that do not abide by the seven-day policy.  But if you get an offer from a journal in category (2) or (3), you expedite with all of the journals in category (1).  And this shows why the journals in categories (2) and (3) signed up.  It's true that by holding their offers open for seven days, they risk losing articles to HLR, YLJ, SLR, and UCLR, whereas if they gave exploding offers they would get some articles that otherwise might have been picked up by one of these journals higher up the food chain.  However, by being on the list, category (2) and (3) journals get submissions in the first wave that they otherwise would not get.

Consider a hypothetical illustration.  Let's say that an author follows the two-wave strategy and gets an offer from the Minnesota Law Review.  She expedites at HLR, YLJ, SLR, and UCLR, all of which (let's say) reject her article.  What does she do now?  She hasn't yet submitted her article to the second wave, so she can't expedite at, say, the U Penn L Rev.  She might well just take the Minnesota L Rev offer, however, because of risk aversion.  This explains why we don't see very low ranked journals on the list: authors would use those journals to expedite at the top of the list but turn down offers from such journals to enter wave 2 if push came to shove.  But for what I'm calling the good-but-not-top-15 journals, being on the list is a way of getting good will for seemingly acting selflessly, while still managing to give de facto exploding offers in many circumstances.

Time will tell whether this turns out to be a winning strategy for the journals in categories (2) and (3).  If it does, we can expect to see their ranks swell--which would work very much to the advantage of the category (1) journals.  And once the ranks of category (2) and (3) swell, the game theory of a category (2) or (3) journal joining the 7-day-club would begin to swing around: They would no longer be giving de facto exploding offers.  They would then be getting only the detriment but none of the benefit of having joined the club.  But by then, if the club had reached critical mass, it would be too late for a journal to defect.

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