The Social Science Research Network (SSRN) was founded 20 years ago and has become a popular place for legal academics to share their research. The SSRN objective is “to provide rapid worldwide distribution of research to authors and their readers and to facilitate communication among them at the lowest possible cost.” The success of their efforts sees SSRN currently listed by the Ranking Web of Repositories site as second in the world.
So it’s not surprising that the SSRN download count has fast become a valued measure of an author’s readership and the potential impact he or she might be having in their particular field. And it’s also not surprising that some faculty worry that the introduction of an institutional repository might have an impact on the SSRN status they have been carefully building.
For anyone who may not be familiar with what an institutional repository is consider the definition that Clifford Lynch provided in his 2003 report to the American Research Libraries, “Institutional Repositories: Essential Infrastructure for Scholarship in the Digital Age“:
“[An institutional repository is] a set of services that a university offers to the members of its community for the management and dissemination of digital materials created by the institution and its community members. It is most essentially an organizational commitment to the stewardship of these digital materials, including long-term preservation where appropriate, as well as organization and access or distribution.”
There has been a fair bit of interest in this “SSRN vs. the institutional repository” issue recently. One of the best articles written on the subject is by James M. Donovan* and Carol A. Watson**, “Will An Institutional Repository Hurt My SSRN Ranking?: Calming Faculty Fears.” Donovan and Watson provide a nice overview of the different purposes and function between SSRN and an institutional repository. They also compare download counts between SSRN and SelectedWorks one of the components of the Digital Commons institutional repository software from Bepress.
They arrive at this conclusion:
“Faculty members should not view the proposed IR as a drain on their SSRN rankings. While SSRN excels at delivering their work to the cadre of legal specialists, IRs typically do a better job of presenting it to a broader readership. This expanded exposure should be judged a positive benefit of participation in the IR, helping to mitigate criticisms of law faculty as sequestered, insular, and writing only for themselves. Anyone interested in giving their ideas the widest possible hearing should deposit their intellectual work in as many venues as possible. For law professors, this means they should have both SSRN and the IR working for them.”
They see the two working together. They are complimentary services rather than two services placed in competition with one another.††
Simon Canick*** comes to a similar conclusion in his article, “Library Services for the Self-Interested Law School: Enhancing the Visibility of Faculty Scholarship”:
“Our law school’s experience with using both SSRN and our repository, Mitchell Open Access, supports Donovan and Watson’s key conclusion; namely that redundant posting dramatically increases net downloads. In William Mitchell’s case, SSRN downloads have declined marginally since the debut of Mitchell Open Access, but net downloads have skyrocketed. This is the rare service with no downside; it provides broad dissemination of faculty work, predictable and enthusiastic institutional support, quantifiable and measurable success, and fixed costs.”
Canick also makes the following useful observation in note 62 about monthly statistics and open access:
“Professors who never expressed much interest in open access report their appreciation for receiving monthly download statistics from the repository. Probably a part of it is vanity, but there are other reasons as well. Seeing a spike in downloads for an older article tells a professor that a long forgotten research interest may be worth revisiting. Professors have also been invited to submit new articles for forthcoming symposia, or to present at conferences, because of work found in the institutional repository or SSRN.”
With an increase in “net downloads” this kind of exposure to scholarship is beneficial no matter where interested readers or fellow researchers might happen upon their work.
Canick was kind enough to share an updated version of the chart he includes at the end of his article.
Download counts for SSRN are represented here by the relatively flat blue line along the bottom. The William Mitchell College of Law download statistics for their institutional repository are represented by the green line. And the combined total of the two is shown by the red line.
The download count for their SSRN papers have fluctuated between about 7,000 and 10,000 per month over the course of the last three or four years. Canick reports that they have been receiving over 4,000 downloads per month for their faculty scholarship collection which generates a cumulative total of about 50,000 per year.
Citation analysis is important because it’s used to measure the impact that scholarship has on research in specific disciplines. The focus of citation analysis is on who might be citing whom or, in other words, whose scholarship has been used to further the research of other scholars. Although citation analysis has its flaws it is used in academic hiring and is still a valued part of the tenure review process.
To some extent the ease in which scholarship is currently accessed on the internet is starting to influence how the impact of one’s research is measured. This can certainly be seen in the recent value placed on metrics that count downloads from institutional repositories and website hit counts. However, what it all seems to boil down to is access and availability. When I look at the red line representing total “net downloads” in Simon Canick’s chart above I wonder if, in the end, it really doesn’t matter where readers access relevant scholarship only that they have an opportunity to do so.
† With apologies to Electric Light Orchestra.
* James M. Donovan is Director and Associate Professor of Law at the University of Kentucky College of Law Library
** Carol A. Watson is Director of the Law Library at the University of Georgia Alexander Campbell King Law Library
*** Simon Canick is Associate Dean for Information Resources and Associate Professor of Law, William Mitchell College of Law
†† See also their White Paper: Behind a Law School’s Decision to Implement an Institutional Repository where they “distinguish the benefits of the [Digital Commons] from those of another somewhat similar undertaking, the Legal Scholarship Network (LSN) of the Social Science Research Network, or SSRN.” (p. 5)