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Monday, February 04, 2013

SSRN: Any Limits?

I'm delighted to be back for another stint on Prawfs; thanks, as always, to Dan for having me and to the Prawfs community for engaging in such smart and spirited dialogue.

One question that's been on my mind a bit recently concerns the proper use of SSRN.  I'm not the only one who's noticed that blog posts have started appearing as SSRN papers.  As someone who blogs at least a little I have to say I was initially somewhat surprised that people were dropping their posts onto SSRN.  On reflection, though, I realized that at least some blogs feature at least some relatively long and detailed posts -- posts that I would describe, in a very general way, as scholarly, which I suppose is my unstated standard for what belongs on SSRN.

Still, I wonder.  I assume most blogs don't easily accommodate careful, detailed, and heavily-footnoted work, i.e., the kind of work I normally think about when I think about scholarship, and, indeed, the kind of work I normally think is worth saving in a central location like SSRN.  Of course, scholarship is changing: online journal "supplements" are allowing shorter turnaround and less verbose work to be recognized as scholarship.  Maybe blogs are just the leading edge of that trend.  But this in turn just re-raises (at least for me) the question of what's worth saving.

I'm tempted at this point to say, what the heck -- if storage space is cheap, and the database easily searchable, why not just let everything in?  But that in turn makes me wonder about a phenomenon I saw a lot in student papers about ten years ago (and probably still exists to some degree): the careless citing of Internet cites as authority for propositions.  Is some less egregious version of this likely to happen in legal scholarship if blog posting and other not-quite scholarship starts appearing?  Blog postings are already starting to show up in scholarly footnotes.  Is their appearance on SSRN going to give them a scholarly gloss they otherwise might not merit?

Implicit in all this is the assumption that appearance of a paper on SSRN somehow plays a gatekeeping role -- the crude form of the idea being that "it must be scholarly if the author put it on SSRN."  And maybe that's still a good rule of thumb.  Or maybe not: after all, even now people post early drafts that we request not be cited.  But that use of SSRN -- which really does serve its tagline of "Tomorrow's Research Today"--  is different than one where it becomes seen as an all-purpose depository for half-baked ideas, op-eds, musings, and, yes, blog postings.

A final thought: Is there anything wrong with having such a depository?  Is there any benefit?  If so, should it be SSRN?  As is probably obvious from the  above zig-zags in my thinking, I'm really unsure about all this.  I'm curious what people think.

Posted by Bill Araiza on February 4, 2013 at 12:48 PM | Permalink

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Fun post. Interesting to think about SSRN as playing a gatekeeping function. You seem to be assuming that "it must be scholarly if the author published it in a law journal."

What I tend to appreciate most on SSRN is when people post things not in law journals, because those are the pieces I am less likely to stumble across when looking at CILP or searching WL/Google Scholar. So bring on those reports, white papers, op-eds, and yes even blog posts.

Posted by: Jessie Owley | Feb 4, 2013 1:06:58 PM

SSRN imposes some limits: http://joshblackman.com/blog/2012/11/27/my-own-theory-of-the-law-has-been-exiled-to-the-ssrn-privately-available-wasteland/

I'm not sure why we would want limits beyond that. It might be a little tacky to post borderline scholarship on SSRN, but I think opinions can reasonably differ on this.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Feb 4, 2013 1:15:04 PM

Orin:

Thanks for the link to Josh's post. It's interesting: I have heard people talk about the gatekeeping function played by editors of particular SSRN series (e.g, Law and Courts) but not by SSRN itself. But even assuming that an editor may keep a paper out of a particular series, it's odd to read in Josh's post that the advocacy nature of the submission makes it ineligible for any type of public display on SSRN -- I mean, I've seen briefs on SSRN. None of this is to question Josh; it just makes me confused about who's doing the gatekeeping and what the criteria are.

Posted by: Bill Araiza | Feb 4, 2013 2:49:34 PM

I believe Josh's article was just a title: The body of the article was blank.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Feb 4, 2013 3:52:19 PM

SSRN is good at making scholarship available that might not otherwise be easily available (especially drafts), and at collecting all of an author's works in one easily browseable place. Using it for blog posts serves the first function not at all and dilutes the value of the second. It's an academic form of spam. Whether or not SSRN polices for it -- and I tend to think that SSRN shouldn't -- it's a bad idea.

Scholars be warned: doing this makes you look like a tool. If I see that someone uses SSRN for ephemera, it makes me less likely to read anything else they post.

Posted by: James Grimmelmann | Feb 4, 2013 4:30:22 PM

You can find a lot of answers to your questions on the SSRN FAQ page: http://www.ssrn.com/update/general/ssrn_faq.html
Also, if your law school has a research paper series, the SSRN contact for your school can provide a lot of insight and information about how papers, including briefs, are classified (private vs. public).

Posted by: Amy | Feb 4, 2013 5:05:08 PM

Great discussion. Stimulating, learned, and full of original insights and research. Be sure to post this to SSRN and I am sure it will get lots of downloads!

Posted by: prawfytool | Feb 4, 2013 7:16:54 PM

I completely agree with James -- I'd be much likely to read a scholar's "real" work if he or she posted a blog on SSRN. (Really, are the thoughts you dash off at 2 am because you're ticked about something that profound?) And I say that as someone who (from time to time) writes blog posts that lean toward the scholarly side. All blog posts can be found quite easily on the internet via Google or Justia; there is no need to upload them to SSRN if all you're interested in is exposure.

That said, I can see the utility of a scholar collecting a large number of scholarly-leaning blog posts on a particular subject -- Balkin, Kerr, Levinson -- into one document and uploading it to SSRN. I would find that kind of document quite useful, because most blogs do a very poor job with keyword searches.

Posted by: Kevin Jon Heller | Feb 4, 2013 8:22:19 PM

Much less likely, that is...

Posted by: Kevin Jon Heller | Feb 4, 2013 8:22:48 PM

Orin, the article wasn't blank. It had a single footnote, to perhaps the most important law review article of the year.

Posted by: Josh Blackman | Feb 4, 2013 10:16:20 PM

Agree with James. Posting your individual blog posts to SSRN as "articles" makes you look like a tool. But posting your legal humor pieces to SSRN? That's, like, awesome.

Posted by: Miriam Cherry | Feb 5, 2013 11:09:54 AM

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