Improving SSRN

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There has been a lot of talk in the legal blogosphere about how to improve SSRN. Most recently, Professor Stephen Bainbridge wrote:

There has got to be a better way for SSRN to communicate with its users. I’d like to see at least three preliminary steps. First, combine all subtopic abstracting journals. There should just be one corporate and securities journal. Second, email is so yesterday. RSS feeds are the way to go. There ought to be a RSS feed for every journal. Third, there ought to be a way to combine RSS feeds from multiple networks and topics into a single feed.

Over at Conglomerate, Professor Gordon Smith has made a number of suggestions for improving SSRN.

So I thought I’d provide my thoughts about SSRN. First, despite some gripes I have with SSRN, by and large, I think that it is a great thing. One of the original purposes of SSRN was to allow scholars to share works in progress and to get comments on drafts prior to publication. In my experience, SSRN has only partially succeeded in this function. When I post drafts, rarely will I receive many emails from scholars with comments. I often send drafts of my work out to several scholars for their comments, and by and large, this is how I obtain feedback on drafts. Occasionally, I have received some thoughtful comments about a draft I posted on SSRN, but this has not happened very frequently and seems to be happening less often each time I post a paper.

But SSRN has taken on a new valuable function — to distribute PDF versions of final published works. This is how I now primarily use SSRN. I will still post a draft of a particular work — usually around the time I submit to law reviews or shortly after my article is accepted by law reviews — and then I will replace that draft with the final published version when it comes out. So I use SSRN to store my final published work.

Having a final version of my articles on SSRN has several advantages. Articles on Westlaw or Lexis are much harder to read, as Westlaw converts footnotes to endnotes. Moreover, Westlaw and Lexis are often not used by many readers, such as professors in fields other than law, journalists, and others. Thus, SSRN provides a broader way to distribute my work. And I must confess that I do like to see how many people are viewing my abstract and downloading my articles. I don’t believe that download counts say anything other than the fact that a paper is popular, but they do measure the extent to which an article has been distributed. For the purpose of measuring distribution, which I believe is the most important function of SSRN, download counts are helpful.

Unfortunately, SSRN needs a lot of improvement if it is to serve the purpose of distributing final published works. Here are some suggestions for reform:

1. SSRN needs better search functionality. The full text of PDFs should be searchable on Google. Ideally, the SSRN site would incorporate a Boolean search capability similar to that of Westlaw or Lexis. Right now, SSRN allows the searching of abstracts, but that’s often not helpful enough for research purposes.


2. SSRN should allow for an indication of the draft/final status of a paper. Many articles on SSRN are old drafts of pieces that exist in final published form elsewhere. I often have no way of knowing if a paper on SSRN is the final version or just a draft. If it is just a draft and the final version exists on Westlaw, I’d rather read the Westlaw version. But if it is a final PDF, then I’d rather read that version. So there should be an icon or some kind of notation on the abstract page to indicate whether the paper is a draft or a final version.

3. SSRN emails should include a listing of drafts that were replaced by final versions. A paper’s abstract is included in the SSRN email journals when it is first posted, but it doesn’t appear again in the emails if the author replaces an old version with a new version. I often will download interesting drafts and store them in my computer for months before I have time to print them out and read them. If a final version has been added in the interim, I’d sure like to know that. So I suggest that final versions merely be listed in a special section at the end of SSRN emails. The list would only need to include a link to those papers where a final version was uploaded. Including abstracts would probably be unnecessary since since the abstracts were sent around previously when the draft was originally posted.

4. SSRN should create a series of automated blogs, which contain the abstracts of newly posted papers. This is similar to Smith and Bainbridge’s suggestion of an RSS feed.

5. If an author desires it, there should be an option to allow readers to post comments on an article’s abstract page. This would facilitate discussion about an article. Authors could, at their discretion, disallow comments. And authors could delete offensive comments.

6. There should be a section in abstract pages where authors can provide links to other online resources related to an article. For example, articles are often written about in blogs or in law review forums. It would be great if an author could provide links to these discussions on the SSRN abstract page. The SSRN abstract page should be a repository for discussion and commentary about an article. Right now, SSRN pages are rather static and dull. SSRN should be taking greater advantage of the interactive nature of the Internet — abstract pages could serve as a useful research tool, a central place for finding commentary about a particular piece of scholarship.

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4 Responses

  1. Dan Markel says:

    These are some terrific suggestions. I would add that although SSRN is often the source of some gripes from bloggers, Dan is correct to point out that SSRN really is doing a lot already to promote access to scholarship and deserves our thanks and good will as well.

  2. Stephen Bainbridge just posted an interesting response to this post.

    He agrees with many of my proposals, but he does not believe that my suggestion #4 is akin to his suggestion for an RSS feed. My understanding is that nearly all blogs can be fed into an RSS feeder, so having the blog and an RSS feed can go hand-in-hand. Many people prefer reading things in blog format rather than feed format, so doing the blog with feed satisfies the most preferences.

    Stephen is also not keen with my suggestion of including a list of final versions in emails, primarily because he loathes the SSRN emails. I’m not so down on the emails, but I do wish that they would be consolidated. The ideal solution: People subscribe to all the journals they want, and then abstracts from those journals are automatically combined into one email that is sent out to each person once a week.

  3. Edward Swaine says:

    1. These are very good, somewhat ambitious suggestions. An easier fix that would improve the value of SSRN for finished works, but especially for drafts, would be to speed up the circulation/distribution process. I’ve found the folks at SSRN to be reasonably speedy about posting papers and, on occasions when they have lost a piece for weeks at a time, to be very responsive if prompted. What baffles me is the time it then takes for notice of the posting to go out via the subject-matter and other journals — sometimes it’s months. Am I missing some obvious explanation for this? Maybe the emails’ academic authors are carefully evaluating each and every submission . . .

    Assuming that RSS feeds or their equivalents aren’t adopted, and we don’t have the kind of consolidated emails Dan describes in the comments, at the very least we could have longer (and less frequent) emails that clear the backlog.

    2. One way to determine where SSRN is faltering is to look at what the market’s producing — e.g., excellent blogs like Legal Theory and International Law Reporter, which in part provide publicity for papers of interest to the authors. I don’t think anything will replace them, but it’s interesting that one will often see papers there that get lost in the SSRN mill, or are emerging via email sometime in the next calendar year.

  4. Eric Goldman says:

    Good suggestions, Dan. Re. #6, I blog about my articles when posted to SSRN, and I will include links to third party discussion/commentary about the article if available. So I use my blog to provide this information, and I would likely do so in preference to SSRN’s abstract page. But I think #6 would be very valuable for anyone who doesn’t have a blog.

    Eric.