Boycotting SSRN?:
Over at The Laboratorium, James Grimmelmann explains why he is no longer posting his papers to the Social Science Research Network (aka, SSRN). "Despite being a system supposedly designed to encourage the spread of scholarship," he writes, SSRN "has made a striking series of decisions that cut against open access."
  I simply do not trust it to put the interests of scholarship ahead of its own. I don't know what other ugly surprises are lurking ahead, but I'm not eager to find out the hard way. I don't want my papers held hostage there, and I don't want to make things any harder on my readers than absolutely necessary. I will not post any more papers to SSRN, and I will not direct readers to my past papers archived there.
  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.
logicnazi (mail) (www):
It doesn't sound like SSRN has done anything that "cuts against open access." They've done several things that make their service more annoying but the only thing that's plausibly a cut against open access was the denial of anonymous downloads which was restored.

I think Mr. Grimmelmann underestimates that values of download counts. Download counts are much like counts of references to an article, sure people care about them for prestige but they also give useful information about what is and isn't important. If they also record information like where the downloader came to the page from and similar stuff it might be even more useful.

The little SSRN URL on the side of the page has nothing to do with open access at all. It's just an aesthetic and procedural annoyance. I can certainly understand why you might not want to use SSRN as a result but it's hardly a reason for anything like a boycott. In fact I don't see what the problem is with putting a paper up on SSRN and another somewhere else. Sure people will go to the SSRN URL if they want another copy (of a paper they are already looking at) but so what? Is the annoyance of having to update your paper at SSRN really work the loss of readers and annoyance to readers to find papers at wherever else you decide to use. Couldn't you put your own URL in the paper in addition?

Finally I think Mr. Grimmelmann discounts the value of having more papers in one place. SSRN has a certain critical mass making it much easier to navigate from one paper to another. Boycotting SSRN will do far more to hurt open access, or at least the usefulness of that access, than anything SSRN has done.

The for profit nature of SSRN is a bit worrisome. Hopefully the terms that allow them to serve your paper require that it be freely accessible but I doubt it. It would be a shame if they got a huge batch of the academic papers available online and then decided to make people subscribe to see them. Even if they were all republished elsewhere the critical mass of papers at SSRN is valuable. But maybe we should be more worried about them just going bankrupt.
11.30.2006 5:42am
18 USC 1030 (mail):
I have a feling at some point google library will make all of this a moot point.
11.30.2006 8:34am
James Grimmelmann (mail) (www):
My take on scholarship is in one sense a fairly traditional one. Sure, download and citation counts are a fun parlor game--my book has been reviewed twelve times, and yours only four!--but they're not really central to the core scholarly enterprise of reading, thinking, and writing. Raw downloads are a poor proxy for thought. I don't object to collecting them, but that changes when collecting them starts inhibiting real scholarly values like openness.

The URL is dangerous because a URL in a downloaded paper may well outlive the site it points to--ot it may outlive the desire to promote that site. If a few hundred copies of a paper are downloaded from SSRN, and then SSRN changes its URLs, or worse, disappears entirely, those papers (and any copies of them passed on) are still branded with misleading URLs. Worse, if SSRN does something actively bad--perhaps switching to a complete paywall for everything--they're now still floating around advertising a Bad download site when there are Good alternatives. They create a (light) form of lock-in and reduce SSRN's future incentives to behave ethically and helpfully.

And as for critical mass, in the age of search engines, it's relevant only when thinking about the economies of scale of posting papers. SSRN does make it cheaper to put papers online, but not by all that much--it's pretty easy to get online these days. (Indeed, SSRN's overhead for posting is quite significant. If you've gone through the process of putting something on your own homepage, of posting it to BEPress, and of posting it to SSRN, the first two of these are easy and the third is not.) It's much easier simply to dump everything online and let the search engines sort it all out. In this, BEPress is again in the lead, since it makes the full-text contents of the papers it hosts generally accessible to search engines. Concentration for concentration's sake just builds up worrisome concentrations of power in the intermediaries.

I hope SSRN improves. The cause is a good one. But there are better ways than the ones they are currently promoting.
11.30.2006 8:36am
James Grimmelmann (mail) (www):
18 USC 1030: I think you are right, but I hope that it is not just Google Library but all sorts of similar indexing and hosting projects. One of the reasons I put Creative Commons licenses on all of my papers that I can is so that they will end up in any appropriate repositories automatically.
11.30.2006 8:37am
Perhaps academic law should start its own arXiv. For more information read the official description and the one at wikipedia. To make this more sexy you can go back to the original url.
11.30.2006 9:38am
Oren Elrad (mail):
Just be glad that SSRN is still free. Us in the physical sciences have to the deal with the bloated for-profit monster that is Elsevier (probably the most evil thing to come from the Netherlands) and their extortion.

Also, arXiv is indeed sweet but the idea has caught on.
11.30.2006 10:50am
Andrew R:
Do download counts always have a connection with useful scholarship? Don't "fluff" articles tend to have high download rates because they're of general interest, are linked from blogs for the entertainment aspect, but offer minimal contribution to the advancement of legal scholarship?
11.30.2006 10:55am
Cathy (mail) (www):
If I can register a separate criticism of SSRN, it's that it's very difficult to be a new, unaffiliated scholar and post there. Their whole author-registration paradigm is built around the idea that the author is inherently connected to their institution. Which may be problematic in its own way for the people who are, and for someone like me, working on my own material on my own time without being part of a faculty or even a firm (in part with the hopes that through my work this condition might someday change...), it feels immediately self-defeating. It was (a) hard to even get my email address/web site listed as the related contact information for my papers, and (b) it's ultimately been listed in a way that completely undermines any ethos I might have since it makes the fact that I don't have a conventional affiliation appear to be such a glaring defect.
11.30.2006 11:31am
Just be glad that SSRN is still free.

Actually, SSRN charges universities very high fees. It's free to download for users, but the subscription fees make it very costly for academic institutions.
11.30.2006 11:46am
Anthony Ciolli (mail) (www):
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.
11.30.2006 12:24pm
Anthony Ciolli (mail) (www):
I also can't say I understand why a university would purchase a high-priced SSRN subscription when regular non-paying users can access SSRN's content for free. Can someone fill the rest of us in on this important piece of information that us non-profs aren't familiar with?
11.30.2006 12:31pm
James Grimmelmann (mail) (www):
Here is a paper with the watermark.
11.30.2006 1:00pm
Anthony Ciolli (mail) (www):
Wow, that certainly is obnoxious. But very odd that it shows up on some papers and not others. Here are some that don't have it (or at least didn't when I checked earlier today:
11.30.2006 1:12pm
John M. Perkins (mail):
Citation rules require the URL and date from online materials, plus cites to blogs also require time of day. Unless you guarantee that all downloads will be bound securely, I want every page to be watermarked

says the reference librarian, who would be happier if you posted on your own websites, moving URL's or not.
11.30.2006 2:59pm
James Grimmelmann (mail) (www):
Watermarking every page is dangerous when there's any possibility that the same document might be hosted somewhere else. Then you'd have a download watermarked with the wrong URL. Better to slap the URL on every page as you print, no?
11.30.2006 3:43pm
logicnazi (mail) (www):
Uhh what's so dangerous about having the URL marked on every page?

Either you ALSO add an additional URL to the paper directing the reader to the location you view as canonical for the paper or you don't.

In the first case the reader can easily find the canonical site if SSRN goes down, stops hosting the paper or becomes a pay site.

In the second case the reader doesn't have any easy means of finding the URL so might as well have a link to at least one site that hosts the paper. I mean if SSRN goes belly up or becomes pay then the user is still no worse off than he was before.

I mean at worst the URL just takes a few extra minutes of the users time to look it up and realize that it no longer works and that's assuming something bad happens to SSRN. That's why I think it's only an aesthetic issue.
11.30.2006 4:58pm