One of my colleagues recently accepted a publication offer on a law review article, only to receive a later publication offer from a much more prestigious journal. This sort of occurrence is not uncommon in the legal academy, where scholars submitting articles for publication do not offer to publish their work in a journal but rather solicit publication offers from journals (and generally solicit multiple offers at the same time). One may easily accept an inferior journal’s offer before receiving another from a preferred journal.
I’ve been in my colleague’s unfortunate position three times: once when I was trying to become a professor, once during my first semester of teaching, and once in the semester before I went up for tenure. Each time, breaching my initial publication contract and accepting the later-received offer from the more prestigious journal would have benefited me by an amount far greater than the harm caused to the jilted journal. Accordingly, the welfare-maximizing outcome would have been for me to breach my initial publication agreement and to pay the put-upon journal an amount equal to the damage caused by my breach. Such a move would have been Pareto-improving: I would have been better off, and the original publisher, the breach “victim,” would have been as well off as before I breached.
As all first-year law students learn (or should learn!), the law of contracts is loaded with doctrines designed to encourage efficient breach and discourage inefficient performance. Most notable among these is the rule precluding punitive damages for breach of contract: If a breaching party were required to pay such damages, in addition to the so-called “expectancy” damages necessary to compensate the breach victim for her loss, then promisors contemplating breach might perform even though doing so would cost more than the value of the performance to the promisee. Such performance would be wasteful.
So why didn’t I — a contracts professor who knows that a promisor’s contract duty is always disjunctive: “perform or pay” — breach my initial publication agreements and offer the jilted journal editors some amount of settlement (say, $1,000 for an epic staff party — an amount far less than the incremental value to me of going with the higher-ranked journal)? Because of a silly social norm frowning upon such conduct as indicative of a flawed character. When I was looking for a teaching job, I was informed that breaching a publication agreement is a definite no-no and might impair my job prospects. After I became a professor, I learned that members of my faculty had threatened to vote against the tenure of professors who breached publication agreements. To be fair, I’m not sure those faculty members would do so if the breaching professor compensated the jilted journal, effectively “buying himself out” of his contract. But who would run that risk?
So I empathize with my colleague who now feels stuck publishing in the less prestigious journal. And, while I recognize the difference between a legal and moral obligation, I would commend the following wise words to those law professors who would imbue law review publishing contracts with “mystic significance”:
Nowhere is the confusion between legal and moral ideas more manifest than in the law of contract. Among other things, here again the so-called primary rights and duties are invested with a mystic significance beyond what can be assigned and explained. The duty to keep a contract at common law means a prediction that you must pay damages if you do not keep it — and nothing else. If you commit a tort, you are liable to pay a compensatory sum. If you commit a contract, you are liable to pay a compensatory sum unless the promised event comes to pass, and that is all the difference. But such a mode of looking at the matter stinks in the nostrils of those who think it advantageous to get as much ethics into the law as they can.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., The Path of the Law, 10 Harv. L. Rev. 457 (1897).