November 03, 2005
Lead Article? Who Cares?
Posted by geoffrey manne

It's not that I can't come up with my own topics, it's just that David keeps anticipating me. So, once again, to pursue tangentially a point David raised --

I think at least a few of our (lawprofs') perceptions of what goes on in the law review black box may be under-informed. Here's an example: I often notice on resumes or other self-promoting materials that an author will point out that his or her article is the "lead article" in a law review issue, which is to say (I believe) that it comes first among the articles in the issue. I assume this is pointed out because it is believed  that "first" is a place of honor, supposedly indicating a perception by the editors of the article's superiority. But is there any basis for this? Does anyone really know how editors choose to order an issue's articles and whether there is any consistency here? My most recent article is the "lead article" in its issue.  It also happens that -- I'm sure only coincidentally -- the articles are placed in alphabetical order by author's last name. 

And what basis, really, is there for supposing that "first" is best?  That's one paradigm, sure.  But a Straussian editor might think the real place of honor is smack in the middle.  And a savvy behavioral theorist might place it at the end.

I realize that this matter is likely becoming moot as SSRN and Westlaw grow in importance.  But other perceptions (like the one noted by David in his most recent post) of law review editor behavior are surely similarly under-informed. 

Any law review editors out there want to comment on the "lead article" phenomenon or other misunderperceptions by lawprofs?

UPDATE:  Arizona informs me that it ordered the articles in my issue alphabet-- . . . I mean, by quality.

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Comments (15)

1. Posted by editor at top 18 journal on November 3, 2005 @ 10:29 | Permalink

Being first means something at our journal. We use it as a bargaining chip to get an author who has an offer at a slightly better journal. Some authors ask to be the lead article. We try to put the best article first. Also, being first probably means that the article was chosen earlier in the selection cycle (first picked are first edited generally).

2. Posted by Bill Sjostrom on November 3, 2005 @ 11:08 | Permalink

My standard operating procedure is to ask whether my article can be the lead prior to accepting a publication offer. I only do this because I've seen profs put it on their CVs, so I assume it counts for something for some people, and its painless to ask. Asking got me the lead slot for one of the three pieces I've published, and I do put it on my CV (incidentally, since the particular article was published in the first issue of a new volume, the page # reference in the cite is "1" which I like b/c even if you get the article through westlaw or SSRN it's obvious that it's the lead in the print version). I view it at best as a small positive and at worst as neutral, so I ask for it. Do you think its a negative?

As for the bargaining chip comment above, I'm going with the slightly better offer every time regardless if I'll be lead at that journal.

PS: Have you gotten through the hundreds of peer-reviewed papers yet?

3. Posted by geoff manne on November 3, 2005 @ 11:30 | Permalink

Bill: I don't view it as a negative, although, given my belief (perhaps false) that article position is meaningless, I do occasionally recoil from the "lead article" designation in CVs (but not, of course, in your case).

In my case, I did not ask for lead article position, but I ended up with it anyway -- although I am suspicious that it was just a relic of alphabetical ordering.

Apropos of the question of what lawprofs know about what editors do, should I refrain from finding out the truth (which would be fairly simple) and just designate my article the lead article? If so, am I diluting the signal for others (perhaps inducing new lawprofs out there to discount inappropriately the designation)? If I were to find out that it was all about the alphabet, would I be misleading if I still used the lead article designation? And would that be a problem?

And should we solve this problem with a mandatory disclosure regime, as David suggested? More fundamentally, if editors really are using the article order to signal their perceptions of quality, why aren't they telling us that? Isn't it in their interest to do so? Isn't it in the authors' interest to encourage them to do so?

At the end of the day, I think your analysis is right on -- it's a small positive or neutral signal, so why not ask for it. And if everyone thinks that way, it will become a larger positive signal. Come to think of it, maybe they do -- maybe I'm just an outlier here.

PS: LOL (which I gather means "laugh out loud." If I'm wrong about that, that's how I meant it, anyway).

4. Posted by Christine on November 3, 2005 @ 12:41 | Permalink

Geoff, I do know that Georgia puts articles in alphabetical order. Once, I was considering an offer from Georgia and I asked (in a very sophisticated way) if I could be the lead article. The editor laughed and said that all authors were in alpha order, but it just so happened that I would in fact be first. The editor also told me that they always laugh when they see author c.v.'s that list Georgia articles as being the "lead article" because they know that the article merely had the luck of the alphabet. Of course, this policy may have changed in the past few years.

5. Posted by jared on November 3, 2005 @ 13:20 | Permalink

At harvard the law review runs all pieces within a single grouping (articles, essays) alphabetically by last name.

6. Posted by top 25 journal on November 3, 2005 @ 13:33 | Permalink

We do the same thing as the first commentor. "Lead Article" is a minor bargaining chip, and we offer it when we're worried about potential expediting. Some authors have asked for it, and we always comply unless we've promised it to someone else. I don't thing it makes any difference though, and I haven't seen an author move to a later issue to get lead status...

7. Posted by Gordon Smith on November 3, 2005 @ 15:40 | Permalink

Sorry if this is a threadjack, but I have never heard the expression "top 18 journal." Two thoughts about that. First, I assume that would be USC, right? Unless I have the wrong rankings, it must be. No one would say "top 18" if they were ranked 17th.

Second, is it true that the quality of the law review is directly correlated with the school's U.S. News ranking? I can think of some exceptions. For example, I think the Harvard Law Review is the most prestigious, but has Harvard ever been ranked #1 by U.S. News? The NYU Law Review doesn't seem like a "Top 5" law review to me, but maybe that's because I went to school when NYU was a lesser school.

8. Posted by Anon on November 3, 2005 @ 16:02 | Permalink

A better alternative ranking for journals would be the Washington & Lee website,, which has Northwestern as having the 18th highest cite count.

9. Posted by StanTheMan on November 3, 2005 @ 16:10 | Permalink

I think that must be a carryover from pre-law obsession over the "Top 14." For whatever reason, that's a common breakpoint among prospective law students. I don't know where it came from, but I suspect it's an elaborate ruse by Georgetown grads so they can feel far superior to the Longhorns.

As regards the topic at hand, lead status is on a first-asked, first-served basis at my journal (which is probably far outside the top 18).

10. Posted by geoffrey manne on November 3, 2005 @ 16:26 | Permalink

Gordon's threadjack does raise an interesting related question -- how do most law profs rank law reviews? To my thinking, no one measure -- US News, Leiter ranking or W&L Citation Study -- is sufficient on its own. "Best" law review is not only a function of the influence of the journal as measured by citations, but also a function of the academy's perception of the status of a journal -- a criterion perhaps more closely aligned with US News/Leiter than W&L. Thus, when our school sought to come up with a list of "top 30 journals," I proposed a list formed by averaging those three measures with the following weights (if I recall correctly): 50% W&L Citation Study/25% Leiter/25% US News. I don't have the resulting list in front of me, but with one ex post adjustment, it pretty much comported with my sense of law reviews' relative status. When I get a chance I'll post the list (or maybe one of my colleagues who has it handy can add a comment to this thread . . . ).

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