Paul L. Caron

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Henderson: Turf, Hierarchy, And Evolving Professional Norms

Bill Henderson (Indiana), Turf, Hierarchy, and Evolving Professional Norms:

Legal Evolution Logo (2021)Earlier this summer, Legal Evolution applied to the Library of Congress for an International Standard Serial Number, or ISSN.  A few weeks ago, we received our official approval. Legal Evolution is ISSN 2769-6161.  You can look us up, along with other publications, at the ISSN Portal.

Most readers have little familiarity with ISSN, primarily because it operates in the background. Its purpose is to track specific titles of ongoing or serialized publications. In essence, it’s part of the inventory control system for the world’s knowledge.  Historically, knowledge has been stored in libraries.  But nowadays, an ever-growing proportion is stored in the Cloud.

In the case of Legal Evolution, the reason to get an ISSN was less about being tracked by libraries and more about documenting our status as knowledge, on par with materials in journals, magazines, newspapers, and other periodicals.  Indeed, it was a small step in a subtle, low-grade turf battle that is going to take years to complete.  Fortunately, I am well-positioned to participate in this battle. And it’s near-certain that my side (our side) is going to win.  This is because accessible online content has become an organic part of how knowledge workers gather and consume information, solve problems, and build their professionals communities.

What turf is being contested?
The subtle, low-grade turf battle is taking place inside universities and centers on the question, “Do blog posts count as research, publications, or scholarship?”

At present, the answer is “no,” albeit deans and other university officials are always happy when faculty work, in whatever its form or medium, helps build the school’s or university’s reputation as a place of serious ideas and real-world impact.

This is not a question that can be fruitfully resolved through debate, in part because “blog” is an unstable category that is in the process of fracturing into several different things that vary by value and impact. Thus, “do blogs count” may turn out to be the wrong question.

Categories of merit get created when useful things don’t fit into the established boxes. Professional groups move slowly because change disrupts systems of hierarchy.  This conservativism is not inherently bad, as most people and institutions want a relatively stable set of rules as they make investments of time and other scarce resources.  Yet, rules of categorization and merit necessarily evolve over time. This is because they risk their own legitimacy when they get too far out of step with the broader world.

Thus, if you want to change “what counts,” it’s likely more effective to build something useful (i.e., something that needs to be categorized) rather than debate your colleagues on a more accurate or precise system of merit. ...

Why did Legal Evolution get an ISSN?
Answer: To provide a slight but meaningful nudge to professional norms.

In the spring of 2017, when I shut down The Legal Whiteboard and launched Legal Evolution, I was, in my own mind, shutting down a blog and creating a new online publication focused on applied research in the legal industry. See Bill Henderson, “Legal Whiteboard Ceasing Publication,” Legal Whiteboard, Apr 17, 2017 (“I am shutting down The Legal Whiteboard so I can make a more ambitious investment in online publishing.”); Post 001 (noting that Legal Evolution is “an online publication that curates and compiles examples of successful innovation within the legal industry” and is “an experiment in applied research”).

For most readers, however, both publications were blogs.  Nothing I could say or write was going to change that.

For the last 4.5 years, I’ve focused on making Legal Evolution something useful and relevant to a professional community—lawyers, law professors, allied professionals, regulators, law students—confronting the need for legal industry innovation.  And every year, in my annual report to my Dean, under the category of research, I summarize the progress and accomplishments of Legal Evolution (growth in subscribers, geographic reach, affiliations of readers, diversity of content, various Google analytics, etc.). Further, it’s not a garnish to other “more serious” research; Legal Evolution is the main dish.

However risky this may have been in 2017, it is less so now.  In my 2021 report, along with strong metrics of growth and relevance, I’ll share Legal Evolution’s ISSN.

Changing what counts
At least in a law school, the question of “what counts” is relevant at three points in time:  T1 hiring, T2 tenure, and T3 merit raises and/or lateral offers.

At T1 or T2, a junior academic is generally being measured by standards and metrics set by their tenured colleagues.  Thus, T1 or T2 is not a good time to contest what counts.

That said, once you are on the other side of the tenure decision, a professor is substantially free to focus on what they think is important.  The only risk you are running is that your view of what counts, or should count, could negatively impact future merit raises or reduce your ability to lateral to another institution. For some academics, that’s enough to chill risk-taking. For others, it’s a manageable constraint.

In my view, the most effective way to influence professional norms and hierarchy—i.e. to change what counts—is to use your freedom at T3 to create something that is valued by an internal or external constituency.  Rather than face embarrassment or lose financial support, the lines for what counts will get slightly redrawn, redounding to the benefit of those at T1 and T2.

Maybe this is how it should be.

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