Monday, June 21, 2010

The Cost of SSRN

So far this morning (that is, since I shut down the computer Sunday night), I have received several dozen new announcements of working papers from the Social Science Research Network (SSRN). Each announcement includes information about 8-10 new papers on average. So far this morning I've leafed through at least the titles and at most the abstracts of approximately 360-400 working papers. Even without reading the actual papers, takes up a sizable chunk of my time. At some point, I begin to wonder whether it is worth it.

To some extent, the time commitment is self-imposed; I could choose to receive fewer announcements by restricting my subscriptions to certain subject areas. However, because I occasionally find important (for my work) papers in virtually all subject areas, I hesitate to do that.

As a contributor of working papers to the SSRN database, the sheer volume of papers troubles me because I understand only too well the temptation to simply press the delete button when confronted by so many SSRN announcements. Ironically, as the volume of SSRN working papers has grown, the rate at which I carefully read abstracts or actually download papers has fallen dramatically; and I assume the same may be true for other users. I wonder what the average download rate is for a paper (across all authors and subject areas). It must be very, very low, and I suspect fallen as the volume of papers increases.

The most frustrating aspect of this problem (if I am right to consider it a problem) is that I can see no real solution. Would I rather have less easy (or no) access to much of the information I obtain from SSRN? Of course not. The problem of too many working papers is simply symptomatic of the larger problem of information overload, facilitated by technological innovations in scholarly communication. On balance, the easier access to information must be considered a very good thing, but it is certainly not cost-free.

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