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Thursday, June 15, 2006

An Interview with SSRN's Gregg Gordon

One of the most important developments in legal academia in the last ten years has been the rise of working paper repositiories.  Social Science Research Network (SSRN) has been at the forefront of this movement, championing the easy and free accessibility of working drafts for scholars around the globe.  SSRN has changed the debate on a number of issues, from measures of scholarly productivity to the quality of working drafts that become publicly accessible.  I recently had a chance to catch up on a number of these issues with Gregory J. Gordon, President and CEO of SSRN.  Gordon helped found SSRN in 1994, and he has worked with SSRN Chairman Michael Jensen on a number of different projects for over 15 years.  Before the founding of SSRN, Gordon worked at KPMG and two entrepreneurial companies in technology and health care.  His work at KPMG focused on start-ups, spin-offs, and other nascent enterprises.

1.  Tell us a little about SSRN.  When did SSRN begin?  What is your mission?  Who are you looking to serve?

SSRN was founded in 1994 by Michael Jensen and Wayne Marr to provide an efficient means to distribute scholarly research.  Our motto, Tomorrow’s Research Today, drives what we do every day.  Tomorrow’s Research Today means rapidly distributing research worldwide enabling researchers around the world to be on the cutting edge of new ideas.  It also means providing reliable, ongoing access and accurate content. Changing the way research is distributed changes the way research gets done, speeds the creation of ideas in the world, and gets new research done sooner. Hence research that would have been available “tomorrow” without SSRN, now is available “today.”

2.  SSRN is a closely held for-profit company.  As many of your owners are corporate scholars, does the notion of “shareholder wealth maximization” enter into your corporate philosophy?  On a more practical level, should we fear that SSRN may sell out to a large corporation if it becomes profitable to do so?

We have never taken any outside money (no investment bankers, venture capitalists, or bank debt).  SSRN has been funded entirely by a small group of scholars and myself. Since we are spending our own funds, this approach has required us to make tough decisions and not do everything we want to do.  The benefit is that we hold the decision rights about what we do in the future.  As we have demonstrated over the past 11 years, we are not in this venture to maximize revenues or profits.  As for a future sale, other than myself, the shareholders are academics.  They have invested their own money and time into SSRN with the goal of changing how research is distributed, value their reputations and relationships within the scholarly community, and would not risk them by selling in a manner that would jeopardize our central goal. Our intention is to never sell, but it is hard to guarantee that.

3.  I'd like to ask you more about the download issue.  Lots of legal academics treat SSRN downloads as an indicia of scholarly impact.  SSRN encourages this by calculating downloads for each professor as well as ranking schools by their faculty download counts.  How important are downloads in measuring scholarly productivity and impact?

Downloads certainly generate a lot of discussion.  We think they can provide information about scholarly impact, in a way that differs from other measures. Downloads counts are especially useful for younger researchers and new and up and coming programs.  As we have said on our About Top Law Schools page and elsewhere:

The importance of scholarship cannot, of course, be captured by a single ranking. We provide rankings based on a number of measures. These rankings are meant to complement other measures of scholarly impact. We currently provide law school rankings for 9 different measures. Rankings are provided for each of the measures in the table and you can re-order the table by clicking on any column heading.

These rankings can inform your thinking about the productivity and influence of schools and authors; but the underlying issues are too complicated to be summarized in any limited number of simple measures. They cannot provide easy answers. They can provide data not previously available that is useful in addressing many issues. Use them carefully and wisely.

It is also important to remember how we define a download.  From our FAQ:

Downloads are a measure of the number of times a paper has been delivered to an interested party. SSRN takes great care to ensure that download counts are an accurate measure of reader interest in an author's work. First, because we distribute complete abstracts of every paper, we ensure that interested readers make informed decisions regarding whether or not to download the full text of a particular paper, rather than uninformed explorations triggered only by a catchy or vague title. A SSRN download starts with the reader visiting the paper's "abstract page." Readers, who still want to read the paper, can then download it. In general, only one out of five abstract views results in a download.

Second, we do not count multiple downloads of the same paper by the same person nor machine or "robot" downloads.  If SSRN permitted a single click to download a paper from another source, such as a search engine or a blog, and counted all mechanical downloads, this would inflate its download counts by a factor that has been increasing over time and is now close to six. This would degrade download counts as a signal of paper quality, and substantially increase the ability of users to manipulate them.

4.  Why don't you provide links that let users directly download papers, without first going to an abstract page?

As we just discussed, catchy titles generate clicks that often, in our experience, do not result in a user reading the paper. If you are interested in potential reader interest, look at the number of abstract views.  If you are interested in actual readership, look at our download counts.  You can look at either number depending on your interest but any comparisons should be apples-to-apples.

Allowing downloads only from an Abstract Page does impose a cost (one more click) on users who already know they want to download the paper.  But our approach reduces the overall cost for the large majority of users who are satisfied with the information on the abstract page.  The abstract page for each paper provides the following information:

  1. Complete title, author(s) name, affiliations, and abstract: this information helps the reader determine if they have the correct paper, are interested in it, and want to download it.
  2. A link to each author's "author page" so users can find other papers by the same author.
  3. Basic usage statistics (abstract views and downloads).
  4. Options: we allow readers to download the paper from multiple, mirrored worldwide locations (SSRN on the US east coast, Stanford Law School on the US west coast, ECGI in Europe, and Korean University in Asia) so that they can choose the one that best suits them, email the abstract to a friend/colleague or to themselves, or add it to their My Briefcase for quick access later.

Another concern is file size:  we have hundreds of papers that exceed 20 MB (and some over 100 MB) in size.  Mistaken downloads of these files can be a significant waste of bandwidth and reader’s time, especially for our many users around the world that have low-bandwidth connections.

5.  How important is the integrity of download counts to SSRN?  What measures do you have to protect against gaming the system?

We treat the integrity of download counts as a very high priority, and have devoted substantial resources toward ensuring that our download counts are clean. We cannot police every single download but our commitment is to do the best we can to ensure that downloads measure reader interest. I do not know what any other site does to validate downloads but I do know that SSRN has multiple filters and spends significant sums to validate our download statistics. When we announced the beta version of the Top Law Schools Rankings last year we also made some of our verification functionality more visible. We now require users who either intentionally or accidentally violate our standards for download counts to log in to the SSRN site to download papers.

There has been some discussion about comparing data from multiple sites.  Some sites provide download information and others do not. The important thing to realize about download data is that it is susceptible to gaming and some sites may not want to have their download data scrutinized.  Although rare, we have had some instances where we have identified some parties trying to increase download counts for themselves or others. In those situations we discuss the matter with the person and (when our systems did not exclude the downloads in real time) we adjust the numbers. If the abuse were to continue we would bar the continued use of SSRN by those involved. This is a time consuming process but critical if the data is to be trustworthy.

In addition, we make significant amounts of our data available, on a close to real-time basis throughout our web site.  Transparency on usage statistics has always been important to SSRN. You can see, at all times, the total number of abstracts, papers, authors, submissions, and downloads from the SSRN eLibrary on our eLibrary Search Page http://ssrn.com/search. These numbers are updated every day of the year. We also show the number of abstract views and download counts of each paper in the system on its public abstract page in real time. Thus it is possible for our users and authors to monitor this data in real time.

6. Let’s say a law school had a policy of sending out the following email to its alumni every time one of the faculty posted an article on SSRN:  “Professor X has just posted a fascinating new piece on SSRN.  Here’s the link.  I encourage you to download this piece and read it for yourself.”  If the dean did that for particular papers, or for every faculty paper, would that constitute gaming the system?

If someone attempted to “game” the system by asking people to download articles that were not of interest to them, we would consider it gaming.  If someone is promoting an article that they think is interesting research that is appropriate. Our email abstracting journals are designed to allow potential readers to receive abstracts and associated information in subject areas of their choice, to help them deal with the “fire hose” of data that SSRN provides in its entirety. These journals are very popular and account for a substantial number of downloads of individual papers. It can certainly be appropriate for schools or research institutes similarly to alert their constituencies to new research of potential interest.  Blogs also do a great job of introducing potential readers to research that they may have missed.  As the number of blogs expands and they become more granular, including Paul Caron’s subject based network of blogs, I think readers will find one or two that are of direct interest to them and read them regularly.  Suggestions from those blogs generate downloads because they are talking to an interested group of potential readers.  As I mentioned above, we provide an abstract page with other data as an interim step to mitigate uninterested parties from downloading an article, and we have technology in place to identify users or institutions that might attempt to directly manipulate download counts.

7.  On our site, Dan Markel asked whether SSRN is turning into a repository only for polished drafts, rather than real working papers.  Have you heard that this is happening and, if so, do you see it as a problem?

It is an interesting question that Michael Jensen responded to separately. http://prawfsblawg.blogs.com/prawfsblawg/2006/01/whither_ssrn.html There is probably not a single right answer.  Some authors put up early work and ask for comments, while others wait until a paper is close to being ready for submission to a journal.  Our submissions are running at the rate of about 30,000 papers per year and they run the entire spectrum.  We want to serve the researcher at all points along the process and are working hard to build technology to be able to do it.

8. What plans do you have for SSRN in the future?

We have a lot of things on our plate. We continue to invest very substantial resources to add new capabilities and increase the value of SSRN to researchers and readers. You will see a continuing stream of innovations from these investments in the future.  Some of them are discussed above but all of them relate to better service for our scholars and expansion of the subject areas, and all of them are focused on providing Tomorrow’s Research Today.

Authors in the SSRN eLibrary regularly tell me that they receive a lot of benefit from our interdisciplinary approach.  By allowing authors to classify into multiple networks, we provide them a mechanism for reaching people they wouldn’t have been able to reach in the past.  By broadening our subject areas within the social sciences and humanities and deepening the research within all of our areas, we can provide a more complete, comprehensive view of the research being produced around the world. Improving the distribution of scholarly research and expanding our interdisciplinary approach is very exciting to me.

Posted by Matt Bodie on June 15, 2006 at 11:49 AM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink

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The Social Science Research Network (SSRN) is a vast repository of working papers in the Social Sciences. At present, they have downloadable versions of over 93,000 working papers (with abstracts of another 30,000) by over 62,000 unique authors, and ... [Read More]

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Comments

i just hope that someday SSRN can published selected papers in a journal or related publications. Thanks!

Posted by: andy | Jul 20, 2008 2:33:50 AM

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