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Sunday, June 08, 2008


In tomorrow's New York Times, it is noted that SSRN allows academics to measure their relative popularity.  Just as newspapers track the day's most downloaded stories and Amazon.com lists book sale rankings, we're told, now academics have found a way to keep score.

It's actually a pretty decent synopsis of the SSRN phenomenon, noting that it takes away the power of gatekeepers, makes scholarship available to the masses and lets them decide what's worthy, etc.  It points out that sexy still sells, noting that an essay with an unspeakable title is the 11th most downloaded article on the site (sorta NSFW, unless you're an academic).

It's still not clear to me what SSRN means for the future of legal academics.  I used to think that it would  be the death of most law journals -- that people would essentially self-publish their work on SSRN and advertise it on their blogs instead of seeking law journal placement.  That doesn't necessarily seem to be happening though.  People will be sure to correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think that the explosion of SSRN has caused most people to stop publishing in journals, at least not yet.  You post on SSRN before (often long, long before) your article sees print, but aren't most people still seeking placements for their articles in old-fashioned journals?   If so, why?  I understand that untenured faculty still need the stamp of approval that comes with law journal acceptance.  For those of us with tenure, though, what makes us continue to seek such acceptance?

Posted by Sam Kamin on June 8, 2008 at 10:39 PM | Permalink


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Good question. I can see why people (usually in other fields that have more legitimate scholarly journals) would want to publish something in a journal as a signal of quality, even after it had already been available on a website somewhere. But I'm not sure why a law professor who puts something on SSRN then needs to be validated by the approval of a group of 2Ls somewhere.

Posted by: Stuart Buck | Jun 8, 2008 11:53:11 PM

Good grief. I hope profs never stop submitting to journals. Westlaw's natural language search function is about 100000 billion times more useful than anything SSRN has or is likely to get.

Posted by: a poster | Jun 9, 2008 12:18:45 AM

I can think of six reasons to start:

1) Publication in a journal makes the article available on Westlaw and Lexis/Nexis, a popular way to find law review articles. Articles on SSRN are not available from these services.

2) Editing by journal gets rid of typos, citation errors, grammatical errors, and sometimes leads to substantive improvements.

3) Some law journal readers are old fashioned; they browse through the paper journals and roam through the stacks in the library. You can't reach them if you don't publish in a formal journal.

4) Added prestige of association with known journal increases article profile.

5) Publication by a journal leads to a final finished version that can be given a citation that will be find-able in the future.

6) Publication in a journal makes the article much more likely to be cited by other commentators and courts, in part for reasons 5 and 6.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Jun 9, 2008 12:23:55 AM

One more thought: Publication in a journal establishes that it is in fact a "real" article. I know of a few professors who like to post very very raw essays, collections of blog posts, and other informal types of writing on SSRN that wouldn't be publishable by a journal. Journals serve a screening function of weeding those pieces out or requiring a lot of work to get them into journal shape. Sometimes even a tenured prof needs to establish that he or she has written a real article; perhaps it's to get summer money, or to qualify for funding, or for purposes of listing bibliographies. A world with a norm of submission to journals does that better than a world without, I think.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Jun 9, 2008 2:09:43 AM

Orin, there was a great documentary about the scientists who partially came up with the concept of "global dimming" that made me think of your post. Apparently, they came across a crucial article on pan evaporation that spurred their interest entirely by accident while flipping through a bound copy of Nature. There are some merits to the old ways.

Posted by: Bart | Jun 9, 2008 7:11:34 AM

Orin -- fair points. I was responding to the post's phrases such as "stamp of approval" or "seek such acceptance."

Posted by: Stuart Buck | Jun 9, 2008 2:46:16 PM

An electronic service that does the following will eliminate the need for law reviews and eventually supplant them:
(1) Attach a comment thread to each article.
(2) Permit public ratings (identifiable votes that serve as public endorsements - subject, of course, to change).
(3) Permit private ratings, again subject to change.
(4) Permit tagging by users (though this one is less essential than the first three).

Interested in an article on Kelo and substantive due process? Search for it, sort by rating, perhaps public or private. Maybe filter to see which ones another scholar gave a high public rating. Read the comments, add your own, follow links to other articles.

Put in place an algorithm like the one on digg.com, and you have a way automatically and without individual, editorial bias, to feature a page or more of articles that are of current interest. Break these out by subject area and you have "journals."

It is a mystery to me why ssrn hasn't already added the ability to endorse and comment on articles. When it happens, the really important reasons for journals will disappear. And we'll have a kind of peer dialogue, if not formal peer review. Not to mention, such a system would allow a greater variety of scholarly forms. I can't wait to see it happen.

Posted by: Christian Turner | Jun 10, 2008 1:44:31 PM

Shameless self-promotion: I wrote about this -- and included a tagging/rating proposal -- in 2006 in The Idea of the Law Review: Scholarship, Prestige and Open Access.

Posted by: Mike Madison | Jun 10, 2008 10:37:41 PM

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