The Future of SSRN
Over at the VC, Orin Kerr has an interesting post about the Social Science Research Network (SSRN), where professors and others can post their scholarly articles online and make them available for people around the world to download. Orin quotes from James Grimmelmann, who has declared he will no longer be using SSRN because it has made a “series of decisions that cut against open access.” Orin writes:
I largely share James’s concerns. I’m not quite ready to pull the plug and stop posting to SSRN, but I have certainly thought about it. I’m particularly eager to see if SSRN will end its mandatory watermarking practice, which was introduced as an “experiment” and I hope is a short-lived one.
The watermarking practice Orin speaks about is SSRN’s decision to place its URL prominantly on each and every page of articles in its repository.
I agree with Orin. SSRN has long served as a very useful repository to make papers widely available, but lately, it has taken steps that have struck me as annoying at best and restrictive at worst.
The SSRN URL that is now branded onto every page of my articles is quite obnoxious. I like to post final versions of my papers on SSRN, and my preference is to have an exact copy of the final version, not a doctored-up version by SSRN.
SSRN has also taken steps to become more restrictive in allowing people to download, primarily to preserve the integrity of its download count numbers. These numbers are fun and interesting, but increasingly people are using them as some kind of indication of a paper’s status or quality or impact. This strikes me as rather silly. Download counts indicate that a paper was linked to by some prominent blogs, but it doesn’t indicate paper quality or scholarly value. It indicates the popularity of a paper with certain Internet communities. This can be interesting to know, but beyond being interesting, I don’t think that the download count says much about a paper’s quality. It’s like using TV ratings as an indication of quality — Jerry Springer got good TV ratings, but that doesn’t mean his show is good scholarship. I like the download counts, but they cease to become fun when people take them too seriously and when they become the primary function of SSRN, detracting from SSRN’s original purpose.
As I see it, SSRN’s primary purpose is to make scholarship readily available online. SSRN should be striving to further this goal, by improving the ease of access to the papers, by getting more people to post final versions of their work, by having better options for designating the status of papers (perhaps something that indicates when a new draft of a paper is posted or when a final draft is posted), by having the text of papers searchable by Google, etc. Instead, SSRN seems to be putting its energy into the download counts. I hope SSRN doesn’t lose sight of primary purpose in its quest for fun secondary vanity functions like counting downloads.
I’ve been posting papers at SSRN since I began my career, and I really like SSRN, so it’s hard to sever the relationship. Thus, like Orin, I’m sticking with SSRN, but I’m increasingly growing wary of the direction SSRN is heading in.