2012-02-01 Developing a Library Collection Development Policy – Journals Part 1

This is the second in a series of columns about developing a library collection development policy. In my last column, I addressed some of the issues surrounding monographs. In this column, I’d like to consider journals, how they’re used in legal research today both in practice and in law schools, and their place in a contemporary law library collection.

Journals vs Serials

I’ve purposely used the specific term “journals” rather than the broader term “serials”. Serials are any publication that is issued either periodically (daily, weekly, monthly, etc) or serially in successive discrete parts, the publication of which is normally intended to be indefinite. The serial format includes not only journals, but also law reports, statutes (not least of all annually-published statute consolidations and annotations), citators, looseleafs and other supplemented books, magazines, newsletters, annual reports or proceedings, directories, newspapers and more. In this column, I will consider journals only, which I define as serials publications with a distinctive title, containing a mix of articles by more than one contributor, issued at regular stated intervals, the individual issues usually paginated to constitute distinct volumes.

Academic vs Professional Law Journals

In law, as in other professions, there are two kinds of journals, distinguished by their content: academic journals (eg, Osgoode Hall Law Journal, Alberta Law Review), aimed primarily at a scholarly audience, and professional journals (eg, Canadian Bar Review, Canadian Business Law Journal) intended for practitioners. Both types of journal can be peer-reviewed and contain articles of scholarly merit, the product of extensive research.


The distinction between academic and professional journals is often blurred and both types can be of equal interest to both academics and practitioners – at least, this used to be the case. As the legal academy becomes less focused on teaching for practice, scholars seem less interested in law’s professional journals. For a program on “writing for publication” being organized for students by one of our faculty, I once suggested inviting an editor from a Canadian law publisher with an extensive list of professional journals; I can still remember how the suggestion made the faculty organizer’s nose wrinkle. In the end, the roster of speakers was exclusively academic. Likewise, many academic journals have become increasingly specialized, esoteric and, however interesting to enquiring minds, irrelevant to the practice of law.

Commercial vs Non-commercial Law Journals

In North America and Australia, academic law journals are usually, though not always, published by law schools; in which case, and especially if edited by students, they are generally referred to as “law reviews”. One of the advantages of law reviews is that they are relatively inexpensive to subscribe to; and increasingly, as a consequence of the Open Access movement in scholarly publishing, these journals are even available free on the web either on a standalone website (eg, Harvard Law Review) or on their home institution’s open journal system (eg, Fordham Law School’s Institutional Repository). Canadian law schools have been slower to go “open access”: Currently available open-access and online are the Manitoba Law Journal, McGill Law Journal, Osgoode Hall Law Journal, Ottawa Law Review, and the University of Alberta’s Constitutional Forum and Review of Constitutional Studies. (We can now add to this list Western Law’s new student-edited law review, the Journal of Legal Studies, which has just started publication and as an open access journal.)

In Britain and Europe, on the other hand, almost all academic law journals are commercially-published and, compared to North American law reviews, expensive. Needless to say, none of them is available open-access. Similarly, almost all professional law journals are commercially-published and expensive; indeed, they are often very expensive, especially those aimed at commercial, corporate/securities and intellectual property practices. There are some happy exceptions to this rule. An exception on both counts is the Canadian Bar Review, published by the Canadian Bar Association and available free on the web to all members. (Why it’s not free to everyone is a question that should be asked.) Similarly, the Canadian Tax Foundation’s Canadian Tax Journal is also available free on the web. Members of professional associations and special interest sections will usually receive free access to their online publications with their memberships. (Unfortunately, most associations will not allow members’ law firm libraries to access their online publications for free, an irksome and unnecessary restriction.)

One wonders why commercially-published journals are so expensive. The authors who submit their articles for publication in law journals, whether practitioners or academics, generally do not expect to be paid. I don’t know any authors who have been paid for or collect royalties from their published journal articles. (One wonders where the royalties collected by Access Copyright for every article photocopied at a Canadian university are going: to the publishers?) Practitioners who publish often do so as a means of marketing their services, and academics, of course, have to “publish or perish”. The concept of collecting royalties is contrary to the ideals of the Open Access program. Many question whether academics, as well-paid members of the public sector, should be allowed to claim copyright in their published works. (See also Steven Shavell’s article, “Should Copyright of Academic Works Be Abolished?” Harvard Law and Economics Discussion Paper No. 655.

I don’t like to obsess about the cost of commercially-published journals; publishers are entitled to make a profit. Still, in the end, journals seem like bad value compared to what we pay for them. The annual subscription cost for a law journal comprising at year’s end one slim volume is often three or four times as much as the cost for a considerably larger book; and though there are no royalties or author payments to make, and production costs continue to decline and editors’ salaries are flat, annual subscription rates continue to increase at accelerated rates. To these actual costs must be are added a library’s hidden costs to receive, process, circulate and shelve each issue of each journal, to track and claim for missing issues, to bind completed volumes, and to store them in our libraries, where they occupy increasingly more and valuable space that could be put to more active and constructive use. Is it any wonder that a disproportionate and growing portion of strained library budgets is being consumed by journals, and we would rather not have to deal with them?

Other Criteria for Evaluating Journals

Cost is not the only criterion when evaluating whether or not to collect a journal. The first consideration will always be the relevance of the journal to the firm’s practice areas or the school’s curriculum and faculty research activities. Equally important will be a consideration of the journal’s intended audience: general/specialist, academic/practitioner, introductory/advanced, etc. The publisher or issuer’s reputation also merits consideration: the regular perusal of one expensive journal from a well-regarded and reputable publisher can make the difference between professional diligence and negligence. Finally, we will want to consider whether and where a journal is indexed and whether we have access to that index. Without indexes, it impossible to find and use in research the contents of the journals we pay so much to collect.

Lastly, a library must determine whether to subscribe to a journal in print or electronically, which will be the topic of the next part of this column.



  1. Another excellent summary of the state of play and the issues we are all grappling with. Thank you Louis!