Documenting the Decline of (Print) Law Reviews

Surveying reviews' spotty compliance with reporting requirements, editor of The Green Bag finds their circulations in steep decline -- but does that necessarily mean lost influence?
February 2, 2009

You don't have to look far for evidence of the decline of the print medium, as daily newspapers contract by the day, amid other signs.

But not surprisingly, perhaps, publishers are not exactly advertising their woes, and as a result, Ross E. Davies, editor in chief of The Green Bag law journal and a professor of law at George Mason University, had some difficulty when he sought to catalog the print readership of the country's leading law reviews.

In a paper prepared for The Green Bag's annual almanac and available now on the Social Science Research Network, Davies found that many law reviews were inconsistent, to be kind, in keeping up with a U.S. Postal Service requirement to publish their circulation numbers. Seven of the 15 leading journals he examined had not published their statistics for 2007-8, and several of them seemed to flout the rule consistently.

While Davies speculates about whether ignorance or something else explains the failure, he suggests that it may be better explained by what is revealed by the data he was able to collect, which show that all of the law reviews have seen significant drops -- most in the range of half to two-thirds -- in their print circulations. Harvard's law review fell to 2,610 paid subscriptions in 2007-8, down from a peak of 8,760 in 1979-80, and the University of Virginia's had dipped to 530 from 2,396 in 1980-81, as seen in the table below.

Total Paid Circulation for Law Reviews in Top 15 of 'U.S. News' Rankings

Law Review 1979-80 1987-88 1997-98 2007-8
Yale Did not report 3,700 3,300 Did not report
Harvard 8,760 7,325 4,367 2,610
Stanford Did not report Did not report Did not report 1,008
Columbia 3,795 2,947 2,273 Did not report
New York U. 2,100 Did not report 1,362 Did not report
Boalt Hall (U. of Calif.) 2,549 1,990 Did not report 884
Chicago 2,068 Did not report 1,922 Did not report
Penn 2,176 1,762 1,334 923
Michigan 2,950 2,535 1,925 783
Northwestern 1,771 1,264 Did not report Did not report
Virginia Did not report 2,029 1,536 530
Cornell 3,350 Did not report 2,803 Did not report
Duke 1,326 1,335 Did not report 957
Georgetown 3,197 Did not report 1,487 Did not report
Vanderbilt 1,995 1,550 1,265 850

Does the underreporting of the numbers reflect an "unwillingness ... to confront the possibility that a drop in circulation might be connected to a drop in influence or status[?]" Davies wonders.

He is quick to note, though, that with the increased availability of the law reviews through electronic means, including services such as Westlaw and Lexis and HeinOnline, it is distinctly possible that the "net consumption of law reviews is actually on the rise, along with their influence or status."

But without good and accurate data from the publishers, Davies says, "Who knows?"


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