Law Reviews Born Digital Pt. 1: An Online-Only Publication

It's amazing that in this day and age, no flagship law review has taken the lead to go all digital. To date, all of the American law school's flagship law reviews still publish in print and most are duplicating coverage through their own institutional website or through a digital repository. The information is also uploaded to Lexis, Westlaw, and HeinOnline.

There are many pros to going all digital -- the cost savings associated with canceling print, greater access, and marketing through social media, to name a few.

In fact, the issue was solidified in 2008 with the Durham Statement on Open Access in Legal Scholarship.

"[T]he directors of the law libraries at the University of Chicago, Columbia University, Cornell University, Duke University, Georgetown University, Harvard University, New York University, Northwestern University, the University of Pennsylvania, Stanford University, the University of Texas, and Yale University met in Durham, North Carolina at the Duke Law School. That meeting resulted in the "Durham Statement on Open Access to Legal Scholarship," which calls for all law schools to stop publishing their journals in print format and to rely instead on electronic publication coupled with a commitment to keep the electronic versions available in stable, open, digital formats."

Additionally, "[t]he Statement anticipates both that the costs for printing and mailing can be eliminated, and that law libraries can reduce their costs for subscribing to, processing, and preserving print journals. There are additional benefits in improving access to journals that are not now published in open access formats and in reducing paper consumption."

"[T]he current model of journal publishing is entirely outdated. Right now, law reviews submit content to one of the handful of specialized law review publishers. Those publishers print the content and mail book-like volumes to subscribers. The publisher also sends that content to Westlaw and LexisNexis [and HeinOnline], the [three] major online legal research databases. Journals charge a small subscription fee and, sometimes, a content reuse fee if their articles are reprinted in textbooks. West and Lexis charge a great deal more. Most journals operate at a loss. What is peculiar about this system is that many journals also publish their content as PDFs on their websites. PDFs, of course, are searchable by Google and easily findable through Google Scholar. For free."

So, why hasn't anyone taken the lead? "The answer is probably about competition; no law school wants to be the first to go 'online only.' If prestige is truly the obstacle — we are talking about lawyers here — the solution is an industrywide collusion. If deans from a collection of law schools discussed this, perhaps during an Association of American Law Schools (AALS) conference, they could reach a disarmament agreement." The Durham Statement has been in place for over 5 years, yet no flagship law review has made the jump. 

There are a few factors that give rise to the reluctance to go all digital. Although there are many pros to going all digital, the major con, at this point, is with archiving. Currently, we still consider the print publication to be the most stable format to archive, and we rely on various law libraries to archive the volumes for us.

Many law school institutional websites have not contemplated archiving law review content into perpetuity. It is imprudent for a law review to rely solely on a third-party database to archive the information. For one, the third-party database could, theoretically, go out of business without notice. And second, if a law review relies on a third-party database, those who want to reprint an article will have to purchase the article at a more expensive price from the database, which might preclude the greater dissemination of the work.

Some law schools now rely on digital repositories such as Bepress Digital Commons to house their online content. These repositories are built for longevity, but even those flagship law reviews that use a digital repository haven't ceased printing. Not too long ago, Duke Law Journal announced that it would soon cease printing (it uses Digital Commons), but we still receive the print publication as of May 2013. Also, the cost savings associated with ceasing print could be offset with the purchase of a digital repository and the IT man power to make it work.

It's time for a law review to step up and be the model for all others to follow. We need to contemplate best practices for archiving law review content or risk losing valuable information. 

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