The Supposed Rise of Empirical Research in European Legal Journals

Over the years, I have heard various colleagues say they thought empirical legal research (ELR) has been on the rise. Some see this as a positive development, making law and legal research more evidence-based and diverse. Others are critical, for example because ELR projects are more successful when it comes to obtaining grants than doctrinally-oriented projects.

For sure, I have seen many ELR workshops, conferences, symposiums and other events been organized over the years. Nevertheless, I have wondered why there would be an increase of ELR. I have not seen more colleagues who have been enthusiastic about ELR actually start doing more ELR. This year, together with two co-authors, I took the time to go analyze the proportion of empirical articles in the 2008 – 2017 period for a large number of European-based legal journals.

The result? The evidence for an increase is weak at best. The results do not provide convincing evidence (if any) for an increase of the proportion of empirical articles. We did find some other interesting effects, such as more prestigious journals being more likely to publish empirical articles than less-prestigious journals, and older journals being more likely to publish empirical work than younger journals, but not at an increasing rate.

The study obviously comes with some limitations, since the time period that was examined is limited, because an analysis of the submitted articles may paint a different picture, or because ELR scholars may tend to publish in US-based journals rather than European-based journals. Nonetheless, the findings do raise the question why ELR has not become more popular.

Various reasons can be identified that form obstacles for ELR to grow. The availability of data that can be analyzed is undeniably important. But perhaps more important is training. To my knowledge, legal academia has not been considerably changed in that it implemented a more empirical focus in the programs offered to law students. As a result, academic staff is not incentivized to obtain empirical skills, and because graduates are not trained empirically, they are unlikely to see the importance nor will they see the necessity to recruit empirically trained law school graduates. It therefore seems that if we want to increase the use of empirical legal research, it starts in legal education. And by simply start doing it.

The article can be found here or here.