Dan Markel has some interesting thoughts about the purpose of SSRN:
I had been under the impression that SSRN was developed initially so that scholars could see "tomorrow's research today." In other words, scholars (and the public) could access drafts of work well before publication, along with past publications by a particular author....
The "problem," as I see it, is that, at least in law, SSRN is being used as a way to generate more information relevant to the evaluation of a potential scholar (should we hire her, well, let's consider how many articles are up on SSRN, or how many downloads the person's scholarship gets, or, how good the article on SSRN is). If SSRN is being used for evaluative purposes rather than constructive feedback purposes, then it seems likely that people will not post their "shitty first draft" up, but rather their penultimate draft, or potentially, just their final draft that was published.
The post has already generated some thoughtful comments, including from Michael Jensen, who shares Dan's concern. Also, Larry Ribstein has weighed in, expressing his hope that people will not refrain from posting drafts on SSRN just because they fear negative feedback.
My views on this, shaped by long experience with SSRN, are mixed. Like both Dan and Larry, I appreciate feedback on working papers. Moreover, I have never refrained from posting a paper on SSRN for fear that it will generate negative feedback. The problem is that SSRN has never been good at producing that sort of feedback, at least for me. As Dan observes in a comment to the original post, "few people I know actually receive comments from strangers on their drafts, which raises questions about whether the vision of SSRN is being realized; I know I haven't. Have you?" No. If I am ready for comments, I present the paper at a conference or faculty workshop or send it directly to people who know the field. I have long given up on SSRN as a mechanism for generating meaningful feedback. (As several people, including Larry, have noted, blogs offer a much better forum for generating feedback.)
If not feedback, then what is the purpose of SSRN? I can think of two very good arguments for SSRN that do not depend on its utility in generating feedback. First, it offers direct marketing of scholarship based on subject matter. This is not such an issue in finance or sociology, where the journals provide focus, but in law our most prestigious publication outlets are general law reviews. I have asked our library to route 10 or so general law reviews to me when they arrive, but I almost never find articles about corporate law through this method. I read (scan?) general law reviews to see what people are talking about in other areas. For current work in corporate law, I rely heavily on SSRN to supplement conferences and word-of-mouth.
Second, SSRN introduces new audiences to my work. Almost everything I have published appears in law reviews, and most people who study venture capital do not read law reviews. By posting my papers on SSRN, I can reach those people. For example, I had the wonderful experience of listening to a presentation in the Netherlands in which one of my papers was discussed by a young European finance scholar I had not previously met, who found my paper on SSRN. (This example illustrates another audience that we are able to reach most easily through SSRN: scholars working outside the U.S.)
Michael Jensen is interested in finding new ways for SSRN to provide "tomorrow's research today," and he wrote this in the comments at PrawfsBlawg:
SSRN is also experiementing with an earlier draft phenomenon, that is the posting of presentation slides which are clearly early drafts of work in progress. I have posted several with a prefatory remark that these are experiements in posting of more general documents than simply finished working papers.
I like this idea. I am doing several symposium papers this spring, and, inspired by this comment, I will post slides along with audio here on Conglomerate.
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