The Future of SSRN

ssrn.jpgOver 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.

You may also like...

9 Responses

  1. Anthony says:

    Can someone link to an example of a paper that has this watermark on every page of the actual PDF document? I downloaded two papers today, and also reviewed the versions of two of my own papers currently on SSRN (including one I uploaded just last week), and none have an SSRN watermark or an SSRN URL splattered all over the place. Perhaps this watermark only appears for certain users or on certain papers?

    Of course I have my own set of issues with SSRN, but I’d like to see an example of this particular bad practice before condemning it.

  2. geoff says:

    I must say that whatever marginal moves away from open access you notice at SSRN, they appear to me to be very small indeed. Invisible, even. I have yet to encounter the slightest obstruction to downloading papers from SSRN: I receive an email, I see an abstract I find interesting, I click the link on the email, I click the link on the paper’s SSRN page, the pdf appears. From notification to searchable copy residing on my hard drive takes about 15 seconds. Oh, and, so far anyway, always sans watermark. I bet that my experience–because I have yet to encounter even a single exception to this process, and I look at and download a lot of papers from SSRN–is typical. Could it be that you and others are looking a little too hard for problems?

  3. Anthony says:

    The download obstruction certainly is real — whenever I try to download a paper on a computer other than my laptop (which has me perpetually logged in to SSRN) I get a full-page prompt demanding that I either login or “download anonymously.”

    It’s the watermarks and the URL splatters that I’ve never encountered, though that doesn’t mean they aren’t there (probably just affecting only certain types of users or papers).

  4. Anthony says:

    Here is a paper with the watermark, courtesy of Volokh.

  5. Marty Lederman says:

    “The SSRN URL that is now branded onto every page of my articles is quite obnoxious.”

    Dan (and Orin, if you’re reading along): Huh? Do you mean the modest little runner along the left-hand side? What is the possible problem with that? — it seems to be a very modest and reasonable price to pay for the extraordinary resource that SSRN is providing. “Annoying at best and restrictive at worst”? I barely even notice it. “My preference is to have an exact copy of the final version, not a doctored-up version by SSRN.” Doctored-up in what way? Do they alter the text on the page? Change the page numbering?

    I’m a bit incredulous that you guys think this is a problem significant enough to be worth blogging about — which in turn leads me to think that I must be entirely missing something much bigger, because your sense of blogworthiness is usually impeccable.

    What’s up?

  6. On the run, but in response to Marty’s question:

    On the Cyberprofs list, it was noted that the watermark messes up the use of tools to convert from PDFs into plaintext.

    Advertising a location is dangerous because the location may well change; it amounts to a form of lock-in for SSRN.

    And, most importantly, the paper-hosting function of SSRN is not an “extraordinary” resource. Hosting things online in accessible forms is not a difficult job (in the scale of things), and others are doing it as well–and in many cases better–than SSRN. What makes SSRN an “extraordinary” resource is its abstracting service, not its hosting function.

  7. Orin Kerr says:

    Marty writes:

    It seems to be a very modest and reasonable price to pay for the extraordinary resource that SSRN is providing.

    The problem is, this isn’t the price of SSRN. The price of SSRN is in the tens of thousands of dollars that SSRN charges individual law schools for subscription fees. To participate in the download count game, a school has to fork over lots of money to the owners of this for-profit business. Plus, the fees are high enough that some law schools just can’t afford to participate, and don’t.

  8. Miriam Cherry says:

    There’s also the matter of ad content tailored to the searches you’re running. I find it distracting; much of the ads have little to do with anything you are searching for; and quite obnoxious.

  9. CSMcLean says:

    The new BePress “Selected Works” site is really fantastic. I don’t understand why more prof’s aren’t trying it out. From a recent discussion I had with a BePress employee, they are encouraging law professors to sign up.

    To do so all one needs to do is:

    1) Visit:

    2) Click Request Promotional Code

    3) You’re set-up

    Most importantly, all papers are fully google indexed.