For the past few years, I have been using the Social Science Research Network. It hosts scholarly papers and makes them available for free download. I’ve posted some of my papers there, and downloaded hundreds of others’ papers with pleasure. SSRN also runs an abstracting service, which sends out announcements of new papers posted to the site, typically long before they wind up published.
As a reader of scholarship, I find SSRN’s archiving highly useful. Most of what I read are law review articles, and obtaining PDFs from SSRN is generally much more convenient than most of the previous alternatives. Law reviews run on a delay between acceptance and final publication that can easily exceed a year. By the time the printed version arrives, it’s already been fishwrap for months. Even once an article has been published, it may not be readily accessible. Printed library copies are hardly suitable for my own easy marking up; comparatively few law reviews post their own articles online. The online services—Lexis, Westlaw, and Hein—require that you be at a subscribing institution, add their own lag time, and can impose their own formatting problems. SSRN, compared with these more traditional outlets, has been a good model of open access in legal scholarship
I find it harder, however, to be as positive about SSRN as an author of scholarship. Its not that I haven’t tried. I’ve uploaded drafts there and put my pieces into the pipeline to go out through the abstracting service. I’ve had readers find me that way. It’s been okay, as far as it goes. The problem, though, is that surprisingly often, SSRN hasn’t gone far enough. Despite being a system supposedly designed to encourage the spread of scholarship, it has made a striking series of decisions that cut against open access. Three incidents this fall have given me significant pause:
First, in September, SSRN started requiring that some users log in to download papers. I believe in Julie Cohen’s Right to Read Anonymously, so requiring identification to read scholarship is a step backwards. And for what lofty purpose did SSRN require logins? So that they could prevent ballot-box stuffing in counting downloads. If your download request came from an address with some undisclosed suspicious pattern of requests, they’d make you log in to download the paper.
(SSRN is strangely obsessed with counting downloads. I’d link to their updated-monthly download counts by authors and schools, but—guess what—those counts are behind the login wall! When the wind is southerly, I’ll admit that download counts might have some value beyond sheer amusement, but that value is not large. Certainly not large enough to override anonymous reading.)
Under pressure—including some from me—SSRN modified this system so that it now allows you to download without logging in. The page does threaten the would-be private reader, however, that her download will not be counted. Oh, what a horrible fate, not to be able to cast a vote in the sibling rivalry among authors. Whenever I see that page—which, let me repeat, treats my very interest in a paper as somehow suspicious—I click the “download anonymously” button with great pleasure. With this and the other hoops SSRN creates to measure an unimportant statistic with great precision, what should be an instantaneous one-click process becomes a genuine hassle.
Second, and more personally, I wasted several hours dealing with my institutional subscription. While in law school, I was covered by our institutional site license. Then I graduated and started clerking, and I wanted to keep my subscription going, so that I wouldn’t lose too much scholarly heat off my fastball while I worked on real law for a while. That was easy enough; I paid my reasonable dues for a one-year individual subscription. Then, when I came back to school on my fellowship this year, I got one heck of a runaround trying to figure out how to get myself back on the institutional subscription. It ought to have been a trivial switch to flick, but I had to deal with two librarians and two SSRN staffers—one of whom can only be reached by email and apparently never replies to email—over a course of several weeks.
And third, and this one pains me still, was the mandatory advertising. SSRN started slapping watermarks on every page of papers hosted there. Along the side of each page would appear a banner reading: “For an electronic copy of this paper, please visit: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1234568” for some appropriate value of 1234568. Now, I make my papers freely available under the least restrictive Creative Commons licenses my publishers will allow, and I try to do so in the cleanest fashion possible. I don’t particularly trust SSRN to be stable in the long run; I would rather not have my papers polluted with a “please download” banner that refers to a page not under my control and that isn’t the canonical download location I prefer.
There’s a common theme here. In every case, SSRN put its own institutional self-interest ahead of the cause of open access. If download counts are valuable information, then it makes institutional sense to value them ahead of actual downloads. If you’re going to charge readers for access, then it makes institutional sense to have a subscription process that favors being too restrictive over the risk of occasionally letting a non-subscriber slip through. And if you make your money by selling subscriptions, then it makes institutional sense to place your own advertising on the goods. Never mind what these decisions do to open access to scholarship. That’s no longer the point.
SSRN is a for-profit corporation. It’s not yet (I think) a money-making corporation, but its goal is to make money for its owners. It has chosen to do so by providing useful open-access services to scholars, but when push comes to shove, the bottom line comes before the open access part. We don’t need to blame SSRN or find fault with it. It’s just doing what comes naturally—making the decision that it’s supplied sufficient open access to fit into a market niche and declaring that good enough.
This point, by the way, applies to the Law Professor Blogs network. Almost uniquely among legal blogs, they are run by a corporation. Also almost uniquely among legal blogs, they don’t provide full-text RSS feeds. This is not a coincidence. The choice of organizational form leads to an obsession with revenue (or, less charitably, vice-versa), which leads to an emphasis on advertising revenue through ads on the web pages, which leads to a fear that full-text feeds would substitute for the revenue-producing web pages, which leads to the deliberate crippling of the feeds. Thus are the traditions of free scholarly exchange betrayed for thirty pieces of silver per click-through.
As scholars of open access and commons production have noted, this is a more general point. The decision to use exclusion as a business model, or to use command-and-control mechanisms, or to fund oneself by selling things rather than giving them away—these decisions have consequences. They commit you to certain ways of dealing with the world, and to certain organizational structure. When you rely on exclusion, you need to police your fences. When you bring investors on board, you need to show them profits or they’ll pull the plug. When you have substantial numbers of paid developers, you need to have ship dates and rational planning. All of these activities are costly. And all of them can lead you to make decisions in the name of organizational necessity, rather than what would be for the best.
SSRN, I fear, is caught in this trap. 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.
Instead, I have created an archive for myself at the Berkeley Electronic Press, an institution that seems to be avoiding many of the traps into which SSRN has fallen. The BEPress is a non-profit. It is not funded by readers. It does not require logins. It does not watermark papers. And it has attractive web page designs. I do not trust it absolutely, but I trust it more than I trust SSRN. And, more importantly, steps like not watermarking papers mean that I do not need to trust it as much.
Good business—ethical businesses—do not try to lock their customers in. It is better to accept that if the customers are unhappy, they should be allowed to decamp. (After all, if the customers are unhappy, they will decamp, and they will be even angrier if the process was painful.) As a fair number of Web 2.0 businesses have recognized, it is better to keep your customers by keeping them happy.
Open access to scholarship is serious business, and it is something I am serious about. SSRN has been good for scholarship, and good for open access, and it may even be good business, but it is not serious about open access in the way that we desperately need our scholarly intermediaries to be.