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Wednesday, July 20, 2016

SSRN, Elsevier, and the Alternatives (again)

(I've updated this post on July 21 at 10:17am CET, and I've indicated below what content is new or revised)

Elsevier has become the world's largest open-access publisher, but it has also faced quite a lot of pushback from scholars over its open access policies. Now it has purchased SSRN, generally seen as the go-to repository for open access to (mostly) pre-print legal scholarship (or papers not bound by restrictive copyright licenses), and certain voices have begun to call for authors to pull out of SSRN and move elsewhere (the almost-in-beta nonprofit and open access SocArXiv repository looks like it might make a viable option as it comes more fully online).

Following up on this recent post by Howard (of an email by Stephen Henderson (Oklahoma)), as well as coverage at TechDirt, and Author's Alliance (asking: "Is it Time for Authors to Leave SSRN?"), I wanted to raise some additional questions. My first reaction is that a well-organized and sufficiently funded not-for-profit platform would be much more preferable in the long run than keeping ties with a for-profit platform owned by a controversial mega-publisher. However, I wonder whether such a move is worth it, without some larger (even institutional) challenge to SSRN's reign. I also wonder whether junior scholars like me risk more in leaving than more established scholars. To the specific questions:

First, is there a role for institutions (law schools) to withdraw support for SSRN/Elsevier and move towards supporting a non-profit like SocArXiv? If so, how would we organize such a movement? Would it be worth it in the long run to move support away from a for-profit platform to something like SocArXiv? SSRN has done a good job of getting institutional buy-in, which may make it harder for a broader institutional challenge to its pre-eminence in this regard. For example, my own law school, at Tilburg University, has proudly advertised that we are ranked in the top 10 (worldwide) and #2 (international, non-US) on SSRN for "total new downloads." We also publish our working paper series through SSRN. Yet, we also have a history of calling for boycotts of Elsevier over not making more work available on an open access basis in the Netherlands. (Edit: I offered these examples to show that the elements of gamification on SSRN work as a way to entrench support or, at least, make leaving more costly.)

Second, what are the individual risks of pulling papers off SSRN and moving elsewhere? Would pulling papers off SSRN (and thus presumably losing the stats and author ranking on the site) be more risky for less established junior scholars (or law prof hopefuls)? What role has SSRN (and author download rankings) played in evaluating entry-level job candidates or lateral candidates for jobs, or internal candidates for promotion/tenure? Does SSRN performance play any role in committees or administrations judging scholarly impact? (if so, should it?)

[Edit: Third, If a new open-access archive for law scholarship were to come online in the near future, what characteristics or features would you want it to have or not have (either those already existing on SSRN, ResearchGate, et al., or entirely new features?)]

 Update (July 21, 2016 at 10:17am CET):

Since I published this post yesterday, a number of new discussions on this topic popped up on a variety of lawprof listservs. The following thoughts from Ariel Katz (Toronto) are shared with permission:

I’d like to float the following idea:

The names of esteemed members of these groups adorn SSRN’s subject matter journals. For example: the editors of the Cyberspace Law eJournals are Peter Swire and Jonathan Zittrain, and members of the Advisory Board are: A. Michael Froomkin, Trotter Hardy, David Reynold Johnson, Ethan Katsh, Mark A. Lemley, Jessica Litman, David G. Post, Margaret Jane Radin, Pamela Samuelson, and Eugene Volokh. Rob Merges is the editor of the IP eJournals and the Advisory Board members are Rebecca S. Eisenberg, Paul Goldstein, I. Trotter Hardy, William M. Landes, Mark A. Lemley, J. Thomas Mccarthy, Margaret Jane Radin, and Pamela Samuelson.

I imagine that being an editor or a member of those advisory boards is rather meaningless in practice, and I won’t be surprised if some of the colleagues whose names are on those advisory boards don’t even remember that they have once assumed this role. However, decorating it’s communications with those names isn’t meaningless for SSRN, because it has helped it to build its reputation for a scholarly endeavor and a scholar-friendly entity, and appear to be part of the academia even though it has always been a private company.

Now, I don’t know if colleagues who are members of the advisory boards were ever asked to actually provide advice. But maybe now is the time to give it, even if unsolicited. If I were on one of these boards I think I might share my concerns with SSRN and decline to give my name if SSRN failed to provide satisfactory answers.

 This email was quickly followed by a number of advisory board members voicing support for coordinating a more united front to give advice to SSRN, or to think about what an ideal alternative platform might look like. 


Posted by Bryce C. Newell on July 20, 2016 at 11:14 AM in Current Affairs | Permalink


Thanks for the feedback Orin, that's actually reassuring to hear (and I hope it's the case across the board). Measuring scholarly impact is difficult as it is with various impact factors and citation-counting measures, but downloads from a pre-print server doesn't strike me as the best way to go about it. I had asked the question because I'd been given the advice a number of years ago to use SSRN, as it might be viewed as an indication of impact, but I've always wondered how important this actually was (besides as one way of making scholarship more freely available).

Posted by: Bryce C. Newell | Jul 21, 2016 4:23:25 AM

I don't think SSRN downloads play a role in evaluating candidates. I think there was a time when SSRN downloads were occasionally used to measure a particular professor's scholarly impact -- not in an important way, but as an aside -- but I think that passed when it became clear that the highest-download articles were often ones of interest outside the scholarly environment rather than inside it. With that said, if I see a bunch of articles in my field and one has a lot of downloads, I'll probably read that one first.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Jul 20, 2016 8:10:21 PM

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