Saturday, December 30, 2006

Your New Year's Resolution: An SSRN Download A Day

Legal historians tend to cringe when discussion turns to SSRN rankings. Legal history as a field doesn't do so well on such measures. There are many reasons, of course. Many of us write books, and of course the books aren't on SSRN. Peer-reviewed journal articles often can't be posted on SSRN. And on and on. But we are probably also creating the disparity: I suspect that we don't download each other's work as frequently as, say, the law & econ folks do.

This is a time when, among ourselves, legal historians often comment on how dynamic and exciting the field is, with many wonderful new junior scholars and much vibrant new work. So it is not that legal history is uninteresting....

Should we bother about the numbers? Even though he notes various caveats, here, including the over representation of certain fields (corporate law and IP), Brian Leiter sometimes posts download rankings on Leiter's Law School Reports , both for schools and for top scholars. Here's August 2005 and here's February 2006. Last September, he simply linked to the rankings, calling them "meaningless chatter," here. There are many eminent legal history and law and humanities scholars. They are not on the lists -- not even the ones who do quantitative history! In spite of the limitations of this data, we have probably all heard, in serious conversation, download data discussed as a measure of scholarly impact. And there is even an SSRN paper on this very topic.

What's up with legal history? It is not simply that there are more papers uploaded in other fields, although that is true. The Law and Economics SSRN journal has a total of 4006 papers, as compared with only 1931 papers in the Legal History SSRN journal. The more important phenomenon, however, is that there is a much higher rate of downloads for law and econ than for legal history. As of 6 pm on December 30, there were 796,509 downloads on the Law and Economics list, and 178,585 in Legal History. This shakes out to about two times as many downloads for every Law and Economics paper.

The difference seems not so great when you look only at the most recent 500 papers: there are 27,904 downloads in Law and Econ and 23,854 in Legal History, or about 56 vs 48 downloads. Not so bad, at least in terms of comparisons between fields. But the top legal history papers overall, in terms of downloads, include papers by the legal historians Richard Posner, Henry Hansmanm and Reinier Kraakman. In other words, folks in other fields cross-post on the Legal History list. Such scholars may be overrepresented among the higher downloads. And it is hard to know whether the most recent downloads represent a trend, or whether law and econ papers continue to accumulate more downloads over time, while legal history papers tend to stall out.

So, here's where you come in...

It may really be best to ignore all of this, but others don't. We often talk about whether measures of merit are socially constructed, etc. This is one measure of who and what is "top" that is, in fact, constructed (or not) by you.

So do something this year for legal history. Make your New Year's Resolution an SSRN-Download-A-Day.
  • Just go here, click on any paper that looks interesting, and download it.
  • Or go here, and search for your favorite legal historian, and download their papers.
  • To find the most current papers, go here.
You may still cringe when Brian Lieter posts the download data, but at least you will have done something about it. And you will have encountered some wonderful new papers along the way.