TCS Daily

Little Things

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - February 20, 2002 12:00 AM

I've spent a lot of time thinking about the Big Things that new technologies mean, and I promise that I'll get around to some columns on everything from immortality to mind uploading. But lately I've been noticing the little things that technology changes. One of those is in my own day-job arena, the legal academy.

Like all professors, law professors gain position based on our reputation among peers in our field. And, as with all professors, those reputations depend mostly on the quality and quantity of the articles that we publish, and secondarily on what people think about our smartness from other interactions: at conferences and workshops, in meetings of Bar Association committees, and so on. (Teaching skills matter within an institution, but outsiders have no easy way of gauging those, so they don't).

In the old days, publication in the law reviews of the top schools was both prestigious and essential to getting noticed. Legal research was done via the Index to Legal Periodicals, a cumbersome volume indexing law-review articles by title, subject, and author. From there, it was necessary to roam among the stacks of the law library's periodical section, pulling down dusty volumes in order even to see whether an article was actually relevant.

Naturally, people tended to economize on effort where possible, and one way to do that was to start with the most prestigious law reviews and work your way down. This meant that people who published in less-prestigious law reviews were less likely to get noticed, or cited.

Nowadays, very few people do research this way. Instead, the first stop is the computerized Lexis and Westlaw databases, where articles are searched by keyword, and where results appear ranked (depending on which you use) either in reverse-chronological order or in alphabetical order by journal. And since you can view the section of the article where the search terms appear just by clicking your mouse, there's less incentive to look only at the most prestigious venues.

I believe that this has led me to cite more articles in comparatively obscure and un-prestigious journals than I used to, and colleagues I've spoken with say the same thing. So although articles in the Harvard Law Review, the Yale Law Journal, and the Columbia Law Review still command more prestige than articles in, say, the Southern California Interdisciplinary Law Review, they are no longer more likely to be noticed.

That's true even for casual browsing. Until about ten years ago, most law libraries kept faculty members aware of new scholarship by photocopying the contents pages of new law reviews as they arrived in the mail, then distributing them weekly in a thick wad. In skimming through them, many faculty members would tend to look only at the contents pages for the most prestigious law reviews, because there were often fifty or a hundred pages in a bundle. Now, to save on copying costs, they're distributed by email and indexed by subject - meaning that I'm just as likely to be aware of an article in my field that appears in the most obscure as of one in the most eminent journal.

To some degree, conferences have also lost their importance as a means of reputation making. Oh, presentations on panels at academic conferences still matter, but now email lists allow any professor with a modem to have his/her views given the attention they deserve. And, in my observation, the interaction on email lists seems more egalitarian. At conferences of the Association of American Law Schools people tend to look at your name tag as soon as they meet you, especially if you're a young and unknown faculty member (the extent to which people's eyes go first to your chest, one of my colleagues notes, serves to give male attendees some idea of what it's like to be a woman). On
email lists, on the other hand, ideas tend to get more attention than the prominence, or institutional affiliation, of the writer. And people make reputations that way, via the cogency of their emailed views, regardless of their location.

If this only involved law professors, it would be of, at most, very mild interest to the rest of the world. But I think the phenomenon is broader than that. We've already seen the traditional "gate keeping" function of major news media begin to break down: humble webloggers are now taking on famous journalists with considerable success, and even parlaying their skills into big-journalism opportunities that would have been otherwise unavailable. Email within corporations and the military has had the effect of flattening the chain of command. And - as with Lexis and Westlaw - search engines like Google mean that even obscure websites are only a couple of mouse clicks away, which is very available indeed as compared with the comparative unavailability of even fairly well-known print publications.

I don't suppose that everyone thinks this is a good thing, but I do. And I think there are some important lessons: the more power that users of a technology have, the more likely it is that the technology will tend to deliver the things that people want. And even little things can produce substantial changes.

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