November 10, 2005
Gaming SSRN
Posted by Gordon Smith

I have publicly proclaimed my affection for SSRN on this blog, but I object to recent efforts by Bernie Black and Paul Caron to promote SSRN as a measure of scholarly performance. I am very fond of Bernie and Paul, but I am highly skeptical of their claim that "there is reason to be optimistic that gaming will not seriously undermine the reliability of the law school and law author download measures."

If SSRN threatened to become a serious force in the world of scholarly rankings (Bill Henderson contends that my "if" is misplaced), ambitious schools would commit themselves to gaming the system. Could they do it? Absolutely.

Last night, I speculated that I "could improve my own ranking by at least a couple hundreds spots quite easily." Bill encouraged me to try, but I have decided not to provoke my friends at SSRN, who take this download stuff seriously. Instead, I will describe what I would have done to improve my ranking substantially overnight.

At present, I have 12 papers posted. My total downloads are 3,184, and my SSRN Author Rank is 966. To move up to #766, I need to achieve more than 3,687 total downloads. That means I would need at least 504 more downloads. How would I get that many new downloads in one day? Answer: many hands make light work.

First, I could use self-help, and download each of my papers from home and from the office. I might even stop at the public library and download some from there. At some point, if I download the same paper multiple times from the same IP address, SSRN stops me, but I could get at least 12 downloads in each location ... and perhaps a lot more. I am pretty sure I could get at least 100 downloads on my own.

Then I would email my students (almost 100 this semester), colleagues, friends, and family. I would ask all of them to visit my SSRN page and download my papers. I am not sure how many would actually do it or how many each person would download, but I am confident that I could achieve many more than the remaining 404 downloads in this way. (I have very nice students, colleagues, friends, and family.)

Obviously, this sort of blitz is not a sustainable strategy for gaming the system, but it illustrates the basic problem: SSRN measures an activity that does not reflect the scholarly merit of the underlying work. A law school that wanted to create a more sustainable strategy for downloading would enlist faculty, students, alumni, and friends of the law school in a patriotic effort: help your school by investing a few minutes online! Among other things, the law school could subscribe all of its faculty and staff and as many students and alumni as they could muster to the law school's research paper series. Then it would get the word out, that if you want to help the law school, you will start downloading. Better yet, how about a "Download-a-Day" email list? Just send that day's link to the listserv and ask recipients to click. It's better than writing a check!

If that doesn't produce enough downloads, we could hire mercenary downloaders. Surely a few students would accept $15 an hour to download papers from their homes. Just have a small army of students taking one spin through the entire list of Wisconsin papers every day for a month and voila! They have earned their law degrees from a Top 10 faculty! Heck, they might do that for free!

Wouldn't it be great if we all started to play this game and diverted even more resources to self-promotion? Goodbye, law porn! Hello, downloads!

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"SSRN has gotten a lot of favorable press recently, and justifiably so. The academic database has rev ..." [more] (Tracked on November 17, 2005 @ 8:06)
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