Access to legal scholarship

I have written several times before about scholarship in the field of law (here, for example, and here). For a variety of reasons, legal scholarship is an excellent laboratory for experiments in changing the traditional structures and economics of scholarship. Both open access and informal forms of scholarship have been more readily adopted and more quickly influential in law than in other fields. The unusual structure of most legal scholarship is a partial explanation for these facts, but many of the experiences and observations made in the legal arena offer substantive lessons for scholarship in other fields.

Nowhere are these experiences and observations better synthesized than in a recent article by Richard Danner, Ruffy Research Professor of Law and Associate Dean for Information Services at Duke University Law School. In “Applying the Access Principle in Law: the Responsibilities of the Legal Scholar,” Danner does a superb job of explaining what is unusual about legal scholarship, what the experiences of changing the publication models have been and what needs and responsibilities for individual scholars remain.

One of Danner’s observations particularly struck me when I read this article, and that impression was confirmed by a conversation I had this week with several librarians. Contrary to the oft-repeated claim that open access will inevitably lead to loss of subscription income for publishers, Danner documents the experience of Duke Law School when it moved all of its journals to open access web accessibility. As Danner tells the story, the school had concluded that the expected loss of subscription income would be offset by the values gained from greater exposure to its 6 print journals. But in fact, there was almost no such decline in print subscriptions, even after 10 years of free access. Only one journal showed an overall decline (of about 2%) over that time period, while four showed significant increases in subscriptions. The sixth journal experienced a small increase. Clearly better access leads to subscriptions from readers who otherwise would not have known about the journals, especially the specialized ones, which exhibited the largest increases. This week a librarian I was speaking with confirmed that she had also experienced this unusual form of marketing, when faculty have asked her to subscribe to journals they have discovered through open Web accessibility.

Overall, Danner’s article is a masterful analysis of the structure of publishing in a particular field and how the “access principle,” a concept taken from John Willinsky’s book of the same name, could transform a field of scholarship. In spite of the oddities of legal scholarship, Danner is very successful at offering both an analysis and a call to action that deserve to be translated and applied in other fields.