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September 06, 2006


Jeff Yates

Andrew's point should be taken in context. He prefaces his point about the usefulness of "interesting" by saying that it's being used by committees, ostensibly, to assess candidates' work. So, while I agree with Bill that I think that I tend to "know it when I see it," there does come the problem of being able to come to consensus (e.g. a committee) on whether an article or a candidate's body of work is "interesting". There is sometimes the problem that differences on views develop into academic "spitting matches" as to whether something is "interesting".

Andy's comment on "big questions" (which are, of course, preferred) raises similar problems. Saying that a person's work is "interesting" or addresses "big questions" may essentially be bringing to bear a post-hoc assessment that is, in fact, driven by a multitude of reasons for this preference.

I think that what Andrew is pointing out is that we need to strive to develop methods of providing objective, rather than subjective assessments of work. Of course, this is never easy. There are some things that we try to do to facilitate such objectivity (e.g. double blind and anonymous review, citation impact counts), but we likely still have a ways to go.

Andy Whitford

The same issue arises in other types of empirical social science research, except then we talk about "the question".

It is possible to have a big hammer (methods toolkit), but only work on little nails ("uninteresting" questions).

And this isn't necessarily a question of (as we say) "having good theory," because one can have a well-formed theory that doesn't address an interesting question. It's an issue of collective salience.

Andrew Martin

I did not mean to imply that only empirical legal research has clear standards that can be used to evaluate scholarship. There are plenty of other standards for descriptive work, doctrinal work, theoretical work, etc. For example, I find pragmatism a persuasive way to assess theories. The argument I am making is that these other standards should be used to assess scholarship, not whether someone finds a piece "interesting."

Carolyn Shapiro

I agree that identifying what is interesting can be difficult and subjective, but I disagree with what I take to be Andrew's implication that "interestingness" is not a useful or legitimate standard for scholarship. In my view, scholarship (empirical or otherwise) may be interesting if, for example, it provides a new way to look at or think about a problem whether by providing new data or by causing a paradigm shift. Or it may be interesting if it teases out the legal or theoretical implications of a piece of legislation, an important case, or some other significant body of law. These are examples -- there are plenty of other ways things can be interesting. Other possible standards -- "important" or "novel" -- I think face at least some of the same criticisms as "interesting," although they may be somewhat less overbroad. And unquestionably the clear standards and replicability that Andrew speaks of are among the great strengths of empirical legal scholarship. But I'd be sad to see a world in which the only scholarship that is valued is scholarship that could (in theory) be replicated by someone else. No Dworkin, Sunstein, McKinnon or Posner? And if, as I suspect, even Andrew wouldn't want to live in that world either, then aren't we stuck with some subjectivity and uncertainty in our evaluations?

Andrew Martin

Thanks, Bill. Your post, along with some emails I've received this morning, make a point I was trying to allude to. That using an "interestingness" standard is not a terribly useful way to judge scholarship. This is one of the strengths of empirical legal research; that there are clear standards that can be used to assess the quality of the work. And, at least in principle, all research can be reproduced by others.

William Henderson


The inability to articulate the criteria for "interesting" is similar to the Potter Stewart's famous quip in Jacobellis v. Ohio on what is obscene: "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced . . . [b]ut I know it when I see it . . . " 378 U.S. at 197 (1964).

What is interesting to me (e.g., empirical work with a large practical or policy payoff) is very likely different than the evaluations of my colleagues.

Further, although I realize that this suggestion will raise cackles with many, I think that citation counts are something of a market test for what is "interesting." By working backwards from high-citation count pieces, it may be possible to answer this question in an "interesting" way. Otherwise, I just don't think this question will yield a workable consensus.


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