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Friday, August 03, 2007

Improving SSRN

I'm quite pleased to be guest blogging again at Prawfs.  Last time I was here, I offered some suggestions on possible improvements to Westlaw (many of which apply to Lexis as well).  Westlaw charges non-academics a fortune for its services, even though it has not kept up with the latest technology nor made some really simple changes to make life easier for everyone. 

SSRN has faced its share of both criticism and praise in the blogosphere.  One thing is for sure: the price is right.  SSRN has also opened up legal and other forms of scholarship to millions of people who would otherwise have considerable difficulty accessing it.  I think criticism of SSRN should be tempered by these two facts.  Nevertheless, SSRN has a number of features that can be improved (see, e.g., Scott Moss's recent post at Prawfs). 

Let me mention one relatively minor suggestion in this post.  I currently receive a number of SSRN "abstracting journals" by email.  Some are subject-specific, and some are school-specific.  These emails contain author information along with abstracts of authors' recent articles posted to SSRN.  When you post an article to SSRN, SSRN allows you to suggest appropriate abstracting journals.  Most people, myself included, tend to pick several overlapping journals.  As a result, I find that when I'm reading emails containing a list of abstracts, I see the same pieces over and over. 

Technology could remedy this (relatively) easily.  Rather than sending me generic lists of abstracts in say, criminal law, send me a personalized email that contains all of the abstracts that fall into subject matters (and I suppose schools) that interest me.  This way, I would only see each abstract once (or perhaps twice if I choose to treat working papers and accepted papers differently).  This is hardly an essential innovation, but one that I think would be much appreciated.  I'll mention a few more potential improvements to SSRN in a subsequent post.

Posted by Adam Kolber on August 3, 2007 at 09:28 AM | Permalink

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A correction to my first post above, and my apologies for posting three times, but I need to correct my first post: The SSRN system for showing and linking references and citations is not yet public, but will be ready for public use in the "SSRN Labs" as soon as we have it (reasonably) bug free and are ready for feedback from our users.

Posted by: Bernie Black | Aug 4, 2007 3:53:12 PM

And one more comment on Scott Moss's suggestion. Absolutely, author pages should be sortable any way the user wants. I'd like my new papers to show up on top, instead of on the bottom, which is where the current sorting by downloads puts them. That too is in development, and coming soon. So keep the good suggestions coming, and if you remember, copy me, because I don't routinely read blogs, and might miss them.

What the default sort should be is a tough question, but as long as the list is resortable, I don't care about that so much.

A list divided into subjects is much tougher -- it relies on the author to keep it up to date.

Bernie Black
Managing Director, SSRN

Posted by: Bernie Black | Aug 3, 2007 6:45:36 PM

On behalf of SSRN, we agree entirely with Adam, and plan exactly what Adam suggests -- give readers a way to get each abstract once and only once. It's in development, so stay tuned.

We agree with Frank too, and a commenting feature is also in development. I wish we could push stuff like this out faster, but we're limited in what we can do by our revenue stream, given our peculiar underlying "business model" of allowing free posting, free downloads, thereby losing money on every paper, and making it up on volume :)

[Editor's note: Bernie informs me that the feature described below is not yet available. So stay tuned and see his correction two comments down. -AK]

Meanwhile, go to your SSRN author page, click on "SSRN Lab" near the top, and you will find something interesting. We're building a web of references and citations, initially within SSRN, but later expanding outwards. This will be frustrating for law authors, because we're starting with papers with explicit reference lists, which most law papers don't have (some of mine do, so I still get respectable citation counts, but that's unusual). Citation counts are way down because of this.

By this time next week, each abstract page will contain a reference list, with links to papers on SSRN, and a list of papers that cite this paper, again with links if the citing paper (or a version of it) is on SSRN.

But we're working on parsing the footnotes of law articles, to build reference lists and citation lists. I'd like to STRONGLY encourage everyone -- put a reference list in every paper you post on SSRN, add a reference list to the papers that are already there -- help us build the web of references and citations. Please. I need to do this myself, for papers that don't already have one.

Bernie Black
Managing Director, SSRN

Posted by: Bernie Black | Aug 3, 2007 6:39:33 PM

Good ideas, and I look forward to more.

Taking a page from the blog playbook: why not allow comments by registered, real-name users? At least give that option to the person posting the paper. It strikes me as an excellent way to consolidate feedback, facilitate constructive criticism, and create community.

Posted by: Frank | Aug 3, 2007 1:56:28 PM

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