Concern over Oxbridge dominance at UK’s oldest law journal

Scholar criticises lack of anonymised peer review at Law Quarterly Review

November 23, 2021
A view of the Radcliffe Camera through a gate at the University of Oxford in England

A leading UK law journal has been accused of failing to guard against bias by not introducing anonymous review practices, amid concerns that Oxbridge-linked authors are “grossly over-represented” in the publication.

Established in 1885, Law Quarterly Review is the UK’s oldest law journal. It describes itself as being “widely acclaimed as a leading platform for scholarly legal debate in the UK and throughout the common law world”.

But the journal has recently faced questions about its selection of academics connected to the universities of Cambridge and Oxford. In its latest edition, 31 of the 45 contributing authors were current or former Oxbridge academics, students or recent graduates – which one legal scholar, who wished to remain anonymous, said was not atypical.

“Oxbridge represents only about 1 per cent of the overall legal community, but, in issue after issue, its academics are grossly over-represented in the UK’s oldest and most famous law review,” he told Times Higher Education.

“If you compare this to Ethics, a journal the same age [1890] but edited blindly and subjected to double-blind review, the difference is striking,” he said, adding that: “Even though it is a Chicago University Press journal, its academics appear in it statistically no more than academics at any other institution.”

Law Quarterly Review is edited by Peter Mirfield, a retired Oxford law professor, while all of the publication’s six editors during its 136-year history – two served for 50 and 35 years respectively – have been based at Oxford. The only other person listed as an editor or as being on its editorial board is a University of Cambridge academic.

“One wonders whether the use of a single editor on this journal and the lack of diversity in its editorship over the years risks an unhealthy self-replication,” the academic told THE.

While the journal is independent from the University of Oxford – it is published by Sweet & Maxwell, a Thomson Reuters-owned imprint – the journal’s strong links to the university, its lack of editorial diversity and its importance within legal studies was likely to benefit Oxford, he continued.

“It certainly has implications for the research excellence framework because those publishing in a prestige title like this are more likely to be viewed positively by reviewers,” he said.

The journal did not respond to a request for comment, but a Thomson Reuters spokeswoman explained that the publication had an “editorial advisory committee, with eight distinguished members, that is available to be consulted on the general editorial direction and to advise on any significant changes to the editorial policies of the journal that might properly be considered”.

The spokeswoman confirmed that the journal did not operate a blind peer-review system.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Narrow-minded? Concern over Oxbridge dominance at UK’s oldest law journal

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Reader's comments (4)

This is brilliant and long overdue. In Britain status takes precedence over substance so landing a paper in these status journals is key. The Cambridge Law Journal had a 100 year issue this year and nearly all the papers are from Cambridge staff. Some of them would have been better papers had external experts been called to comment. It also only allows Cambridge acdemics to be on the Editorial Board. It really is time for these status journals to have representative editorial boards if they are meant to be international journals seeking contributions from all. A proper international journal ought to have an international editorial board with many institutions being represented. If it is fully in-house then do not accept external papers at all so people know it is not a full on academic journal. All these journals need to have robust recusal systems not only for editors but reviewers. Reviewers ought to sign a no conflict declaration each time they review.
This is so useful. I had no idea that it was not double blind reviewed. The editorial replies always seemed to imply that it was double blind reviewed. The reviews were often no more than a line or two and often from persons that manifestly lacked a deep knowledge of the subject. Hopefully Oxford's academics will boycott it in solidary with the Equality Act and Athena Swan, until it introduces a diverse editorial board and adopts double blind review. It really is not good that this is still happening in 2021. The students protest over symbolic past inequality while inequality and inequity is being practiced right under their noses. Unconscious bias is a great opporunity killer and the bias is more institutional in the UK than in the US.
As a BAME scholar I am not surprised in the slightest. Even the Dean of the Oxford Law Faculty complained about racism when pursued by security for no apparent reason. I gave up even submitting to the LQR as I am not embedded in the networks that I need to be in to benefit from non-blind review. The reviews can be toxic and abusive because the reviewer is able to hide behind anonymity while knowing the name of their rival. It is fine to have non-blind if it is non-blind for both sides so that the reviewer has to stand behind any unprofessional commentary, which is what the British Medical Journal does. The current system is not much better than internet trolling. The Research Integrity Office Code of Practice For Research Promoting good practice and preventing misconduct, which provides: “3.14.3 Researchers who carry out peer review should do so to the highest standards of thoroughness and objectivity. They should follow the guidelines for peer review of any organisation for which they carry out such work.” “3.14.4 Researchers should maintain confidentiality and not retain or copy any material under review without the express written permission of the organisation which requested the review. They should not make use of research designs or research findings from a paper under review without the express permission of the author(s) and should not allow others to do so. Researchers acting as peer reviewers must declare any relevant conflicts of interest.”
In the Preface of the student textbook, Simester and Sullivan's Criminal Law: Theory and (2019) by A P Simester (Author), J R Spencer (Author), F Stark (Author), G R Sullivan (Author), G J Virgo (Author); the editor of the Law Quarterly review is acknowledged. Two authors of that book have appeared in the LQR; so too has the son of one of those authors and the wife of another of those authors. Peter Mirfield gave a lecture at NUS in 2019 as a retired academic. Blind review is good for such cases.

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