What Annoys Me About SSRN

by Kevin Jon Heller

SSRN-bashing — most of it justified — has become something of a cottage industry lately. (See here, here, and here, for example.) My own gripe is a bit different: what annoys me the most about SSRN is the interminable delay between uploading a new version of an essay and having it actually replace the old one. As any scholar who uses SSRN knows, the system does not allow direct substitutions; instead, SSRN creates a temporary page for the revised essay that is covered with hideous “under review” watermarks. (See the new version of my aggression essay here, for an example.) SSRN then reviews the new version and eventually incorporates it into the essay’s permanent page.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the system is ridiculous. First, it’s incredibly slow: I have uploaded revised essays more than a dozen times, and I have yet to wait less than 5 days for the replacement to take place — and once it took nearly two weeks. Sometimes the delay is not a big deal; I often fiddle with old essays that are no longer regularly downloaded. Other times, though, it means that a significant number of scholars who download an essay will not read the most current version. That happens, for example, when an essay is featured on a blog or mentioned in one of SSRN’s own subject-area newsletters. At that point, it’s important to have the current version on the permanent page. But, of course, you are out of luck: even if you immediately upload the new version, it will not appear for days — long after the flurry of downloads has tapered off.

Second, the system invariably causes problems with download counts. In theory, downloads from the temporary page should be added to the permanent page’s count once the new version of the essay is approved. In my experience, however, they rarely are. A phone call to SSRN will usually do the trick, but making the call is a pain, especially when you are in a different country with a 16-hour time difference. (And yes, I know it’s vain to care about 15 or so downloads. But for better or worse — most likely the latter — downloads are playing an increasingly important role in publication and promotion decisions, school rankings, etc.)

Third, the system is completely unnecessary for revised essays. I generally understand SSRN’s need to review newly-uploaded essays, though I seriously doubt that many scholars would take advantage of a more open system by posting essays that are slanderous or copyright-infringing (or resemble Jack Nicholson’s book in The Shining). But review makes no sense when a scholar’s essay has already gone through the review process and been approved. Does SSRN really think we’re going to replace our perfectly acceptable essays with calls to assassinate major political figures?

Fourth, and finally, the system is economically inefficient. How many hours do SSRN employees waste reviewing revised essays? If most scholars love to fiddle with their essays as much as I do, I imagine the number is significant. Couldn’t SSRN figure out a more productive use of its employees’ time?

So, what should SSRN do? The ideal solution would be to simply stop reviewing revised essays. (I’ll leave the argument for not reviewing new essays for another day.) If that seems too anarchical for SSRN’s taste, it could at least create a category of approved authors — those with a certain number of posted essays or downloads that have not received any complaints — who would be allowed to upload a revised essay directly to its permanent page. And if even that is too much, SSRN could eliminate temporary pages by making a revised essay immediately available in its permanent location, but with a new “under review” watermark. That would be a far from ideal solution, but it would still be a vast improvement over the current system, which strikes me as the worst of all possible worlds.

Readers? SSRN bigwigs? What do you think?


2 Responses

  1. Thanks for pointing out this difficulty with SSRN.

    I too find the process of revising a draft to be painful–and thus I typically let an old draft languish in SSRN cyberspace. This produces the difficulty of having differing versions of a paper coexisting online.

    But on another point you raise, I’m skeptical: I’m doubtful that download rates play a significant role in publication and promotion decisions or school rankings. There’s a huge subject area/blogger bias in downloads, and thus downloads serve as a weak measure of scholarly impact. I don’t recall download counts being touted (or criticized) in faculty reviews at UC Davis.

  2. Anupam,

    I very much hope you’re right! But I have heard from a number of different law-review editors that they regularly check download counts for essays that they are considering — a way to gauge general scholarly interest in a topic or article. A good idea? Probably not. But one that scholars need to be aware of.

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