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January 15, 2020 Legal Rebels

Reinventing the staid field of legal academic writing

By Jason Tashea

Legal academic publishing isn't synonymous with innovation. The mere mention of it can, for some, bring up repressed memories of the most banal and stuffy aspects of law school. But the Massachusetts Institute of Technology wants to change that.

In spring 2019, MIT announced the MIT Computational Law Report, which according to its website, “is an agile, new media online publication that explores the ways that law and legal processes can be re-imagined and engineered as computational systems.”

Of course, MIT does not have a law school. However, according to Bryan Wilson, editor-in-chief of the MIT Computational Law Report, that just means they have “free reign to re-imagine law and legal publishing in whatever way we want.”

All online, the first issue was released Dec. 6. The Report will continue to publish more traditional, heavily cited law review articles but will also explore opportunities to publish podcasts, infographics and videos. Going a step further, computer source code and datasets will also be published, allowing other researchers to build off the work promoted through the Report.

While inclusive of what legal academia is familiar with, Wilson believes that the publication will break down silos across academic disciplines and allow for a more holistic conversation with more diverse stakeholders, many of whom do not fit in with traditional legal publishing.

To that end, the Report has a cross-disciplinary editorial board with people from four continents, including computer scientists, designers and, of course, legal academics.

Articles will also be peer-reviewed, something that traditional legal publishing has lacked, but scientific and social science publications have embraced for decades.

While the direction of the Report may sound niche, it doesn’t want to be. Instead of scaring away those without the requisite coding of data science experience, Wilson says the publication will be packaged like news websites FiveThirtyEight or the New York Times. Both, he notes, provide information for an informed reader, regardless of technical ability, but also make the raw data behind the story available for those interested.

When the publication was announced in April 2019, Dazza Greenwood, the Report’s executive producer, mentioned that it was in partnership with various parts of MIT, including the Media Lab, which came under intense scrutiny a few months later for its previously undisclosed financial ties to the late Jeffrey Epstein, who was convicted for sexually abusing young girls.

While the Media Lab was involved in the genesis of the Report, Wilson says that the publication is housed at MIT Connection Science, a center. He adds that Thomson Reuters has made the only donation received by the publication, and that it had no strings attached. Learning from the fallout at the Media Lab, Connection Science publishes a list of its donors. (At the time of writing, Thomson Reuters was not listed as a donor on the site.

Putting the controversy behind them, Wilson and his colleagues are looking toward the future. With the first issue published in December, it’s unclear what impact the Report will have. However, Wilson is not shy on what direction he hopes the publication will push the legal academy.

“We ought to start imagining law as a more scientific endeavor,” he says.

Listen to the Podcast

In This Podcast:

Jason Tashea
Bryan Wilson is a fellow at MIT Connection Science and editor-in-chief of the MIT Computational Law Report. Legaltech News listed him as one of the 18 Millennials Changing the Face of Legal Tech for work he completed as a fellow with the inaugural class of fellows with the ABA Center for Innovation. Before this, he worked in an interdisciplinary operations role at RiskGenius, a technology startup, for over two years.