November 11, 2005
Socrates vs. a Multitude of Pigs: A Sober Word on SSRN
Posted by Bill Henderson

I am hesitant to disrupt Christine’s welcomed Rome diversion away from our academic squabbling. But I am headed out of town for a retreat, and I wanted to post the following before I go:

My earlier post on SSRN generated a lot of comments, including Gordon's valid concerns on extending the rankings-mania to SSRN and Michael Guttentag’s query (Comment #1, Comment #2) on what inferences can be realistically drawn from download statistics. I think these issues are sufficiently important to bring them into a new thread.

At the outset, let me state that my own vision of a great law school is far different than a goal of maximizing faculty publications (SSRN or otherwise). When everyone is admiring their c.v.’s and waiting for the phone call from Harvard, no one is investing in their institutions and students—i.e., future lawyers and leaders of government and business. Thus, society is made worse off.

So when I write about SSRN as a predictor of future scholarly productivity or a numbers-driven appointments committee, I am discussing potentially powerful tools. And yes, I worry that such tools will be used irresponsibly. But you can’t put the genie back into the bottle. So here are a couple of empirical points (or quandaries on how to interpret data) that respond to Gordon and Michael.

Regarding Gordon’s concern that SSRN self-promotion will divert us (even further) from our scholarly mission, note that SSRN downloads will only have meaning if they turn out to be good predictors of future scholarship as measured by citation counts and quantity/quality of actual placement. (Of course, this does not deal with the Litvak problem that placement of interdisciplinary scholarship in non-peer reviewed journals is problematic as a signal of quality, but the academy needs to sort that out; right now, placement in the HLR helps one’s career—a lotl)

If gaming significantly dilutes these correlations, then SSRN is less useful. That is why SSRN is investing so much in anti-gaming technology. (And their staff knows the names of the past gamers!) True, a scholar can follow the strategy outlined by Gordon, but at the peril of serious reputational damage. One silly solicitation for downloads posted on Leiter's blog would make someone the laughingstock of legal academia. So, at bottom, the gaming problem may be more theoretical than real. Further, it is empirical question that will eventually be answered with greater precision.

In the comments to my first post, Michael Guttentag has some very thoughtful observations on what inferences we can draw from SSRN downloads. Obviously, some high download figures can only be explained by substantial nonacademic interest (e.g., students downloading assigned papers, investors, or 2nd Amendment advocates).

The Black & Caron study on SSRN rankings discusses the possibility that future technology may enable the company to weight SSRN rankings based on the “quality” of the downloads. This struck me as an idea that might have some theoretical appeal but has insurmountable implementation problems. For example, say SSRN downloads can be broken down into four categories: (1) law and social science professors, (2) law and graduate students, (3) practicing lawyers, and (4) everyone else.

Why should #1 be weighted the most? That seems very ivory tower to me. Cf. Harry T. Edwards, The Growing Disjunction Between Legal Education and the Legal Profession, 91 Mich. L. Rev. 34 (1992) (which produced a symposium on Edward’s critique the following year).  Further, isn’t this just a replication of USN&WR’s arbitrary weighting formula?

The quality-of-downloads conundrum reminds me of a lecture by the late Ernest Gellner. Gellner noted that it would be hard to implement any system of government based on purely utilitarian principles because of the possibility that “a flicker of satisfaction on Socrates’ face may be far better than a multitude of pigs squealing with delight.” After I finished wiping away the tears (of laughter), I realized that I had no interest in drawing those lines.

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