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Monday, August 11, 2008

The New Look at SSRN: An Interview with CEO Gregg Gordon

You may have noticed changes at Social Science Research Network -- both in the page design and in some new features.  Below is a discussion with SSRN CEO Gregg Gordon about these new changes.  A few highlights:

  • SSRN is getting into citation-counting.  If you open up a SSRN author page, on the right there are now colums for "Total Downloads" and "Total Citations."  The citations indicate where the article has been cited by another piece in the SSRN database.  Here's one example: Lucian Bebchuk's The Case for Increasing Shareholder Power has been cited 27 times.  As this number indicates, the citation counts are fairly limited for law professors, because right now the technology only applies to citations from a specific "references"  section or bibliography (i.e., those found in social science or law peer-review journals).  As Gregg indicates in the interview, SSRN is finding that culling citations from footnotes is a lot more complicated.  But the Citations feature is a big first step into a new system where citations are calculated and cross-referenced.
  • Gregg reports that "~13% of the 1.9 million Citations are to working papers within SSRN."  This is a staggering figure.  It indicates the depth of SSRN's influence on current research, particularly in economics and finance.
  • SSRN has another new feature: "People who downloaded this paper also downloaded:".  I get a kick out of these suggestions, and it will be interesting to see how much they aid in research.

The full interview follows below.  (And if you are interested, here's a link to my 2006 interview with Gregg.)

Interview

(1) SSRN has changed its format. What are the primary changes that have been made?

It has been an incredibly busy few months. Many of the changes have been behind the scenes with our Distribution services and Conference Management System. Recently, we released our completely revised Simple Submission process and redesigned Abstract and Author Home Pages.

Some of these items were available on Beta pages earlier this year and the SSRN Community provided valuable comments and feedback.

(2) On an author’s page, the articles used to be ordered according to download counts. What is the default for an author’s list of scholarly articles in the new version?

As more authors are submitting more papers (53 authors have over 100 papers in the SSRN eLibrary), we realize that a more comprehensive page is important. We changed the layout, but the default sort order is still downloads. In addition, we added search capabilities, the ability to view the abstract or download the PDF, several new fields, and the ability to sort the various columns, including Paper Title, Primary Author, Date Posted, and Citations.

(3) You have a trio of new features: References, Citations, and Footnotes. What is the “References” feature?

References, Citations, and Footnotes are part of our CiteReader technology that we created with our development firm, ITX Corp. References are the references from the full text PDF that have been submitted to SSRN. The technology captures the information from the reference section or bibliography within the PDF. We manually verify and clean-up each “potential reference,” and then we parse the reference into the appropriate database fields. It is a lot of work to review 3.8 million references, but the quality is much higher than any of the automated systems we evaluated.

(4) The “Citation” feature is also new.

  • Can you explain how it works?
  • How comprehensive do you expect the “Citation” feature to be?
  • Do you expect the “Citation” counts will eventually replace the download counts, both on author pages and abstract pages?
  • Looking down the road, do you eventually hope to replace Westlaw and Lexis as the “go to” database for legal research?

Citations are the References that have been matched from a different PDF in the SSRN eLibrary. We are working with CrossRef to provide external links using DOIs but have not been able to make it work effectively yet. Once we add the DOI links, we think it will be very comprehensive and, equally as important, provide direct links for references to working papers. Interestingly, ~13% of the 1.9 million Citations are to working papers within SSRN.

As I have said previously, we think there is room for a variety of measures and will continue to add them when feasible. Downloads are a more timely indicator of interest than Citations, especially for new ideas and younger scholars, but they have several well-discussed limitations. Citations help identify important research and its influence on other research, but they have limitations too, including varying rates across disciplines, self-citing, etc.

Westlaw and Lexis are great services and provide valuable information to scholars and other professionals. We don’t think we will ever replace them. Our approach is to create communities for scholars and the readers of scholarly research and to facilitate interdisciplinary interactions between the communities. We will continue to provide tools and technology to accomplish these objectives.

(5) The “Footnotes” feature looks like it’s a data pool for the other two features. Is there any independent use for it?

Actually, Footnotes are completely independent from References and Citations. As you know, most legal research papers do not have a Reference section. They have footnotes. Footnotes provide a wealth of information from references to well thought-out mini-research papers. Unfortunately, Footnotes don’t follow a convention that allows for easy capture, verification, and parsing. We have started to capture and verify them, but the process is much more complicated than References. As we continue to improve our process, more Footnotes will be available. In a future release, we will extract the References from the Footnotes.

(6) When do you expect these features to be out of testing mode?

The current functionality is done, and we are finalizing a few display and design changes, including a tabbed interface for all of these related sections. I think our users will be very happy to have all of the content areas combined onto one clean tabbed page.

(7) On article abstract pages there is now an “Export” feature. How does this work? What might a professor use it for?

The Export feature has been on the page for a long time, but several people have commented that they thought it was new. I guess we did a good job of hiding it. ;)

With more and more scholars referencing SSRN papers, we wanted to make it as easy as possible to add the reference. First, we provided a Suggested Citation so that scholars could cut-and-paste the reference information. Then we added the ability to export this information into several popular reference management applications. Currently, you can export in EndNote, BibTeX, and Reference Manager formats, and we will be adding RefWorks soon. We have also worked with the online services CiteULike and Zotero to allow them to easily create a reference to a SSRN paper.

For the non-scholars and others interested in sharing or bookmarking the research, we added a Share feature that includes the Digg, Del.icio.us, and CiteULike services as well as a Permalink function for adding a link to your web page.

(8) Also, you have a feature entitled: “People who downloaded this paper also downloaded:” I love this feature. Have you taken a page from Amazon here? And how does this work? I would imagine you have some sort of sorting function to pull up the most popular papers, no?

Thanks for the compliment! We love the feature too and use it regularly. A few scholars have commented that they “found” papers relevant to their research by reviewing the list.

We originally worked with researchers at MIT on recommender systems and saw the usefulness of Amazon’s recommendations. Our approach, basically, tracks all of the papers downloaded by a known user, aggregates and orders the data for the all known users, and then ranks them based on a few different criteria. The growth in downloads over the last few years, including the 5.7 million downloads in the last 12 months, has greatly improved the functionality.

(9) What else are you working on?

It has been a very busy summer and the fall looks even busier. From a non-technical perspective, we are excited about the new networks we are starting with prominent scholars. On a technical front, we are completely rewriting the Subscription system to allow for faster distribution of research and more customized modes of delivery. Several subscribers have asked for RSS Feeds and other enhancements, and they will be very pleased with the new system.

Posted by Matt Bodie on August 11, 2008 at 01:34 PM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink

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The new look is very polished, and the new look for the digest emails rolled out a few months ago is positively gleaming. These new features are also great to see, because they're exactly the sorts of value-added features on which scholarly repositories ought to be competing. In terms of fit-and-finish and good Web 2.0 interface goodness, they bring SSRN into the same class as BEPress, and even ahead of it in some areas. There are now two general scholarly repositories for legal academics delivering a high-quality user experience. Congratulations on some fine development work and some very clever new features.

Now how about direct downloads, no watermarks, and allowing outside URLs? If your policies have changed in those areas, I'd love to be able to post a revised version of SSRN Considered Harmful talking about the progress SSRN is making in addressing my concerns.

Posted by: James Grimmelmann | Aug 11, 2008 2:37:49 PM

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