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Thursday, January 19, 2006

Whither SSRN?

At dinner the other night with some colleagues, the topic turned to the point and purpose of SSRN (and I suppose the discussion generalizes to encompass BEPress also).  I had been under the impression that SSRN was developed initially so that scholars could see "tomorrow's research today."  In other words, scholars (and the public) could access drafts of work well before  publication, along with past publications by a particular author.  And indeed, SSRN's homepage indicates that this is the point:

Each of SSRN's networks encourages the early distribution of research results by publishing submitted abstracts and by soliciting abstracts of top quality research papers around the world.

The "problem," as I see it, is that, at least in law, SSRN is being used as a way to generate more information relevant to the evaluation of a potential scholar (should we hire her, well, let's consider how many articles are up on SSRN, or how many downloads the person's scholarship gets, or, how good the article on SSRN is).  If SSRN is being used for evaluative purposes rather than constructive feedback purposes, then it seems likely that people will not post their "shitty first draft" up, but rather their penultimate draft, or potentially, just their final draft that was published.  Consequently, as a result of SSRN, I've heard people lament that they might get more citations, more conference invitations, and potentially more  nibbles from schools interested in hiring -- but almost no feedback from far-flung scholars (or even ones just sitting down the hall) on "real" works in progress.

This experience rings true to me. In my own case, I currently  have only final drafts up.  This seems a shame.  I have three massive projects underway, all of which, in theory, I would love to get intermittent feedback on if only the proper norm -- don't judge these, I'm still working out the wrinkles, and still writing various sections of the paper, please reserve judgment until publication -- operated.  But because SSRN is being used, based on my anecdotal experience, for the purpose of getting data on someone rather than for knowledge-building through collaboration, it seems necessary to build guerilla-SSRN models.  By that, I mean assembling informal networks of friends and colleagues in one's field to do a vetting of draft scholarship prior to submission of pieces to SSRN. 

And of course, it might be pink elephants all the way down--how many of you are reluctant to give your scholarship to anybody but your closest/smartest/most compassionate friends before you circulate a paper to your colleagues (whether senior or junior) in the school and elsewhere?

Maybe the evolution of this norm (if it's in fact a norm) is a good thing.  It does, after all, force people to be careful about what they circulate in their name; it also helps contribute valuable data to an appointments decision.  But I can't help but wonder if delicate egos and ambitions (including mine) are hindering the original mission of these research networks, and whether, net-net, it's a loss to the community of scholars.

Posted by Dan Markel on January 19, 2006 at 03:15 AM in Dan Markel, Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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» SSRN and preliminary works from Ideoblog
Dan Markel complains that because SSRN is now being used as a way to evaluate scholars, it is now less useful for getting feedback on preliminary drafts, given the risk of being evaluated on a half-baked product. Let me see [Read More]

Tracked on Jan 19, 2006 10:48:03 AM

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SSRN is a repository of scholarly papers from a variety of disciplines, including law. Dan Markel recently complained that SSRN is not being used for its intended purpose:I had been under the impression that SSRN was developed initially so that [Read More]

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As I read through Dan Markel's thoughtful post about SSRN, over on Prawfs, I stopped and lingered over his use of the phrase "shitty first draft." Although I have not really been conscious of this before, profanity seems largely... [Read More]

Tracked on Jan 25, 2006 10:39:06 AM


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The norm among the most active scholars I know at top schools is to post drafts, not final papers. If everyone posted only final or penultimate works, as you suggest, SSRN would be nothing but an incomplete version of Westlaw or Heinlein, existing for little reason apart from the vanity of scholars who wish to post their final drafts. Also, if this were the case, SSRN would serve little purpose for those of us who look to it for pre-publication research or to lateral committees in evaluating faculty. It is the drafts-in-progess -- the information about a young scholar's research that may not yet be as public as what is already on Westlaw -- that are most useful to those of us who use SSRN for research or to those who use it in the hiring process; the final versions of the papers are old news. No one expects drafts to be perfect, but posting them does give a glimpse of what you are working on and also shows that you ar not shy about playing the scholarship game of sharing drafts with strangers -- important information to any lateral hiring committee. For a junior scholar, such information is a positive, in my opinion. But then again I have about as much respect for those who post only final drafts as I do for those colleagues of mine who do not share their work until they have reprints. In my opinion, making scholarship such a formality shows a high-level of sensitivity about criticism and thwarts rigorous academic discourse with one's peers and colleagues. If a junior scholar is not gettiong their drafts out there within a year or two of beginning their careers, their work is not going to get the play needed for tenure at many schools.

Posted by: anon | Jan 19, 2006 9:12:44 AM

Dan Markel "Whither SSRN" raises an important issue regarding the dynamics of the SSRN community. His concerns about whether it is migrating to an evaluation device rather than a collegial device is a concern of mine also. I suggest that one way to aid in preserving the collegial nature of the system is to preface an early draft of any paper put on SSRN with language that reveals what the paper is and any requests by the author to readers. For example, on the title page or beginning of an abstract or both the author could put his or her version of something like the following:

Note to readers: This is an early and unfinished draft of work in progress. I am interested in comments/critiques, but I do request that the work not be quoted without my permission so that I can ensure you are quoting from what I consider an acceptable, if not final, draft of the work.

And such a prefatory remark could easily include the excellent language that Dan uses: "I'm still working out the wrinkles, and still writing various sections of the paper, please reserve judgment until publication"

SSRN is also experiementing with an earlier draft phenomenon, that is the posting of presentation slides which are clearly early drafts of work in progress. I have posted several with a prefatory remark that these are experiements in posting of more general documents than simply finished working papers.

There is one more element of SSRN that we can all make more use of. SSRN provides a way for scholars to post papers for private distribution only. You can do this by checking the box at the bottom of the first submission page which says: "Privately Available (this submission will be available for Private Distribution by me)"

You as author can then distribute the url to anyone you would like to download and read the paper. Downloads are kept track of but not counted in the author download count. The paper will not appear in the SSRN eLibrary search function, and will not appear on your author page.

You can make the paper appear on your author page under a heading entitled: "Other Papers" by clicking on the box labelled "Include on Author Page". I use this to distinguish op ed type papers on my author page. Again, the downloads of these papers (while recorded) are not counted in the totals for this author. They will be if and when the author decides to unclick the Private Distribution option in the revision process.

We at SSRN are open to all suggestions for how we might create environments to open rather than close or inhibit scholarly discourse. Email me directly at any time please

Posted by: Michael C. Jensen | Jan 19, 2006 9:26:36 AM

My apologies, I did not make clear in my previous comment that you have to go to your My Papers section in SSRN HQ to find the "Include on Author Page" check box to make the private distribution papers appear on your author page.

Posted by: Michael C. Jensen | Jan 19, 2006 9:42:10 AM

Am I right that Prof. Jensen owns part of SSRN? SSRN is a for-profit business, and I think the scholarly community would be interested in knowing how much he is making from the company -- and thus how much his discussions of the service should be understood as free advertising. (There is nothing wrong with free advertising, of course -- it can be truthful and informative. But it's still good to know when an advertisement is an advertisement.) My apologies if I'm wrong here, and Professor Jensen is really just working with SSRN entirely to help spread scholarly ideas.

Posted by: doseofreality | Jan 19, 2006 9:57:09 AM

Michael Jensen owns a majority of SSRN. I own a minority interest. Our views on what we are trying to accomplish through SSRN are stated on SSRN's home page at www.ssrn.com, under the heading "SSRN's Objective and Commitments to Users". Click on "10th Anniversary Message"

Bernie Black

Posted by: Bernie Black | Jan 19, 2006 10:47:18 AM

A few quick points: first, I don't have any beef with SSRN being for-profit; Westlaw and Aspen and Lexis are all for-profit, and all are invaluable to advancement of legal scholarship, or its distribution. Second, I'm a mite worried that Larry Ribstein's post on his blog about SSRN (and "anon"'s post here) might be read by some to suggest that I'm endorsing the norm change I identify in my post. Just to be clear: I'm not in favor of it, and I'm glad Michael Jensen sees the same concern I do. It is worth noting, again based on simple anecdotal experience, that few people I know actually receive comments from strangers on their drafts, which raises questions about whether the vision of SSRN is being realized; I know I haven't. Have you? Tell us about it in the comments. To the extent the vision's not being realized, I'm sad about that.
(And, perhaps I'm being defensive here, but to address any implicit critique in Larry's post or Anon's comment, I'll note that in my own case, I have in the past posted drafts substantially prior to publication; it just so happens that now I only have final drafts posted on SSRN. The works I have in progress are really far too preliminary to post...but I hope to rectify that by late spring or summer.)

Posted by: Dan Markel | Jan 19, 2006 11:07:46 AM

I've sent comments to a couple of people, and perhaps built good relationships as a result in at least one of those cases. But those were rare occurrences, and even when I've posted a paper link here and begged for comments I've been mostly out of luck. Unfortunate; it ought to happen much more often. Great post, and very thoughtful comment by Jensen.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Jan 19, 2006 11:25:38 AM

I've sent comments to people -- which often suffer the same fate as when I send reprints to people: silence.

On the other hand, when I've posted drafts here at Prawfs (or put up links here to something I've uploaded to SSRN), I've gotten more than a handful of extremely useful comments from readers. So as far as I'm concerned, having a blog and posting drafts to it is much more useful than SSRN alone. When I posted things to SSRN and didn't have a blog of my own, I never heard a word from anyone.

Posted by: Ethan Leib | Jan 19, 2006 11:47:16 AM

Does anyone have a sense of whether a similar phenomenon to the one Dan observes occurs in other disciplines? I know there are similar means of distributing early drafts for review and comment in economics and philosophy, and my (unresearched and entirely anecdotal) sense is that scholars often receive helpful suggestions this way. Which begs the question -- are the problems identified by Dan and Paul unique to legal scholarship? And if so, why?

Posted by: Jeremy | Jan 19, 2006 1:02:55 PM

I thought I'd follow up on Bernie's email re: the spoils of SSRN. Here's the relevant language, which ought to assuage the concerns of "doseofreality."

SSRN reinvests all of the cash it receives (principally from subscriptions to our abstracting journals and from institutions that use SSRN to distribute their research papers), after servicing debt, to enhance our services to authors and users. We currently spend in excess of $800,000 per year on system development and user support. None of SSRN's academic principals have ever been paid for the time they contribute to SSRN, nor has SSRN ever paid a dividend to its shareholders.

Posted by: Dan Markel | Jan 19, 2006 6:23:28 PM

Some scientific disciplines have long had an online site for posting "pre-prints" at Arxiv, http://www.arxiv.org/. As I understand it, "pre-prints" are pre-peer-review, i.e., well before a finished product. More info at (where else?) Wikipedia. When I first found out about SSRN, I thought, "Cool, the legal equivalent to arXiv," and I hope it stays that way, rather than becoming a "post-print" site.

Posted by: Bruce | Jan 19, 2006 6:31:14 PM

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