Would law review student editors have caught Michael Bellisles’s errors that peer-reviewed history journals missed?

October 28th, 2013

Michael Dorf has (yet) another rejoinder to Adam Liptak’s recent critique of legal scholarship. Though this anecdote in the final paragraph is a subtle jab on the accuracy of peer-reviewed editors, as compared to tenacious law review student editors:

One often-overlooked advantage of student editing is staff size.  Faculty-edited journals in law and other fields generally do not cite-check the work they publish because faculty editors themselves simply don’t have the time to do it, and they lack the budget to hire students or other assistants to do it.  But the student-edited law journals typically have 2Ls “pay their dues” by cite-checking.  As an author, the result can be annoying–as when these student-editors justify their existence by adding unnecessary parenthetical descriptions to sources cited in one’s footnotes.  However, the result can also be very useful, as when the student-editors notice that a faculty author has inadvertently cited the wrong page of a source or misquoted what appears there.  Student editors can also catch less innocent errors.

Thus, I’ll close with an anecdote.  Over a decade ago, I was on a panel on the Second Amendment. The panel included historians and law professors.  One of the historians made the point that much of the scholarly literature arguing for reading the Second Amendment as protecting an individual right of armed self-defense should be regarded skeptically because it was published in law reviews rather than in peer-reviewed history journals.  Another historian on the panel nodded enthusiastically in agreement. That other historian was Michael Bellisles, who had then just recently published a widely-acclaimed book, Arming America, in which he argued that colonial-era Americans possessed many fewer firearms than previously assumed.  Not long thereafter, critics revealed that Bellisles had faked some of the important data cited in his book–and previously published in peer-reviewed history journals.  He was stripped of his prizes and resigned his faculty position.  Had Bellisles sought to publish his work in a law review, the student editors themselves might well have found him out, because they, unlike the faculty editors of the history journals, would have asked to see the sources for each of his footnotes.