Out of the Intellectual (and Electronic) Ghetto!

November 12, 2007 | 20 comments
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I have long thought that there ought to be an online clearing house for research papers related to Mormonism. My proposed model is SSRN, the Social Science Research Network, where scholars in law, economics, and other disciplines upload copies of working papers and published articles. Each article is accompanied by an abstract, and all of them become text searchable and available for downloading. (Scholars who either cannot or will not upload copies of their articles can still upload abstracts.) At present there are about 132,000 scholarly papers up on SSRN. Mormon studies, I have long thought, ought to have something like that. It now exists and it is called . . . . SSRN.

In particular, SSRN has recently launched the beta version of a “Humanities Research Network,” which now includes a “Religious Studies” section. In other words, SSRN is now available to host scholarly published and working papers on religion, including one assumes Mormonism. There is no fee associated with using SSRN and while there is some minimal editorial checking of submissions for format issues essentially anyone can post their scholarship. (You do need to create an account.)

There are a number of reasons why a norm of SSRN-posting among scholars in Mormon studies would be a positive development. First, it would increase the availability of scholarly work by centralizing manuscripts in a single (ideologically neutral) location. Second, because the abstracts would be text searchable for all scholars using SSRN, it would help to bring work on Mormonism to the attention of larger intellectual discussions. Third, provided that an institution ponies up the money and support to start it (are you listening BYU or Richard Bushman and CGU?) we could create a “Mormon Studies” topical journal (essentially a dedicated index) at SSRN, which would allow readers to subscribe to get every new Mormon studies paper that is uploaded. Finally — and perhaps most importantly — it would allow writers on Mormonism to engage in silly contests about download rankings with one another.

Mormon intellectuals of the world! I call on all of you to begin uploading copies of your published and unpublished scholarly papers! Get out of the electronic and intellectual ghetto and onto SSRN!

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20 Responses to Out of the Intellectual (and Electronic) Ghetto!

  1. Jonathan Green on November 12, 2007 at 5:59 pm

    Alas, my discipline is not yet represented, not even under forthcoming networks. Some scholars, through no fault of their own, must wait many years to enjoy the full blessings of SSRN, perhaps even their entire lifetime. But I know if I am faithful, in the hereafter I will enjoy all the blessings of SSRN. Nate, perhaps in the eternities I will be made one of your co-authors.

  2. Nate Oman on November 12, 2007 at 6:02 pm

    Jonathan: I don’t know. SSRN now has beta versions of a History Research Network, a Linguistics Research Network, and a Slavic/Eurasian Studies Network. Surely there is someplace where you fit in there. The trick is getting a norm of posting started in any particular discipline.

  3. James on November 12, 2007 at 6:37 pm

    SSRN is a good place to post papers if one is trying to build a scholarly reputation. You can also meet good people through contacts made from posting.

  4. Timer on November 12, 2007 at 11:45 pm

    I’m a big fan of this sort of thing. It’s interesting to compare SSRN to http://arxiv.org which is the equivalent preprint server for physics, mathematics, computer science, quantitative biology, etc.

    1. At arxiv.org they don’t give download statistics. I vaguely recall that they used to do this (I’m not sure whether they still do) on a British version of this site. But I think the feeling was that the numbers are too easily manipulated to be meaningful (many people — for honorable reasons — download their own papers many times as they make reviews, show them to people during their travels, etc., but others don’t), and there was worry about these numbers being misused in hiring, tenure review, etc. (Nate: I typed Mormon into SSRN and your papers were some of the first to come up, so I downloaded a couple of them. This should help your numbers. ;) )

    2. At arxiv.org they make it easy to see old versions of papers. No version of a paper is ever deleted. Is this also the case at SSRN? I couldn’t see any way to get old versions, but maybe I didn’t look hard enough. It is important to have the old versions be permanently available, for referencing purposes.

    3. There are no fees for downloading any of the papers at arxiv.org. No “shopping cart.” It is government/university run and entirely free.

    4. There is no registration requirement for any of the viewing features for papers at arxiv.org.

    5. There are 448,896 papers at arxiv.org, according to the site.

    6. The interface at arxiv.org feels a little starker, maybe a little nerdier. But what do you expect?

    It seems we’re to the point where most serious young scientists in the relevant fields (in every country) post their papers to arxiv.org (almost always in English), though there are still some old-timers who haven’t figured out how to use it, or haven’t figured out that the efforts of some (evil; see below) journals to prevent them from doing so are completely toothless.

    One important issue in science is journal prices. The amount a university department spends buying journals can easily be enough to hire one or two additional faculty. Many scientifically strong journals are owned by publishing companies that seek to maximize profits. Since the marginal cost of printing additional volumes is essentially zero, they price the journal in order to maximize “revenue = number of subscribers times journal price” and charge money for the online versions. Sometimes this results in a price that people in developing countries, smaller institutions, etc. can’t afford, and a price that places an undue burden on the universities that can afford it.

    On the other hand, the scientists who publish in the journal want to maximize availability, not profits. They would prefer that the journals be made freely available online and that the print journal be priced just barely high enough to cover publishing costs. After all, the scientists are not paid by the journals — why should they help the journals squeeze profits out of their universities? Why should they accept having their work made unavailable to researchers from poor institutions?

    There are good journals that operate according to the latter model; they are usually the ones operated by universities or scientific institutions, rather than be massive publishing companies. But the bottom line is that scholars have to take personal responsibility for making sure that all their papers are freely available online, and one way to do that is to make sure all papers are already posted at arxiv.org before any copyright agreement is signed. (Even the most evil scientific publishing companies in the fields covered by arxiv.org have realized they can’t prevent people from posting their papers there; we’ve nearly reached the point where no non-senile scientist would ever sign a copyright agreement that included a pledge not to have the paper online.)

    Perhaps even more important than publishing costs, the arxiv speeds up scientific disciplines. When a paper is finished, the world sees it instantly (rather than having to wait for a peer review/publishing process that can take years).

    In short, I’m a huge fan of arxiv.org, and it sounds like SSRN is pretty similar.

    If there really are Mormon researchers who don’t make their work freely available online in a permanent, searchable setting like SSRN, then I hope they repent ASAP. :)

  5. Dr. B. on November 13, 2007 at 6:40 am

    I’m sorry but there has to be standards even for retrieval of earlier versions showing usable statistics. I believe the original proposal with subsets of Mormon scholarship under history etc. is better.

  6. Eric Boysen on November 13, 2007 at 10:19 am

    How do these on-line publishing locations deal with peer review, fact/source checking or even hijacking. I would hate to look up something related to the church and find myself in an anti- mine field.

  7. James on November 13, 2007 at 11:32 am

    re. 6. Eric, I don’t know about arxiv but SSRN doesn’t have any editorial functions like those you describe. There are two general categories of papers there, working papers that haven’t been through an editorial process and accepted papers that have been through the process somewhere. SSRN is like getting into raw data up to your elbows.

  8. Nate Oman on November 13, 2007 at 11:49 am

    Eric: There is really no editorial intervention at SSRN. The idea is the reputation is the sanction: no one wants to put out totally stupid ideas where they can be easily read and downloaded. Frankly, I am less concerned about the presence of “anti-” stuff than I am about the availablity of any stuff. Also, if you are running some sort of anti-cult ministry, SSRN is hardly a good use of your time. On the other hand, if you are a scholar interested in disseminating scholarly papers, it IS a good use of your time.

  9. Ronan on November 13, 2007 at 12:16 pm

    Nathan,
    Do people typically post their papers at SSRN *and* publish them elsewhere?

  10. Nate Oman on November 13, 2007 at 12:26 pm

    Ronan: Yes. In law, for example, it is extremely common for people to post early versions of papers that are then published. For example, all of my published law review pieces (except for some short student articles) are available in some form on SSRN. Likewise, it is very common to post copies of papers that have already been published. Many scholars do both. Obviously, there are potentially copyright issues here, but most journals are extremely accomodating about granting lisences to authors and in many cases the journals don’t actually acquire copyright, which remains with the authors; the journals simply having a non-exclusive license. Finally, many authors will publish abstracts of published work even if they don’t have copyright permission to post the entire manuscript. This at least insures that a search of abstracts will turn up a reference to the paper, allowing readers to then run down a copy.

  11. Nate Oman on November 13, 2007 at 12:28 pm

    Just to follow up on my last comment:

    I think, for example, that authors of scholarlly articles on Mormonism that have already been published ought to make PDF versions of the published articles and post them on SSRN, provided of course that they have copyright permission to do so. (And in all liklihood they do.)

  12. Timer on November 13, 2007 at 2:14 pm

    At the arXiv, I think you have to have an affiliation with an academic institution to sign up (or else get somebody at an academic institution to vouch for you). This is just to keep out the quacks and crazies.

    At present, there is not much of a problem with people posting on the arXiv stuff that doesn’t belong there. You may get occasional rants and tirades from quack physicists who have discredited all of established science and concocted new grand unified theories of their own, but it’s pretty uncommon, and stuff that is clearly inappropriate can be taken down.

    Of course, it is understood that many of the works on the arXiv are not yet peer reviewed, and it is possible that mistakes will be found that invalidate the entire paper. But, believe it or not, this can also happen to peer reviewed papers…

  13. smb on November 13, 2007 at 2:51 pm

    I’m interested, although I’m not certain how useful having freely available drafts of ultimate papers would be. Papers change through editing, and what may have seemed reasonable at one stage may no longer be with the passage of time. I personally find that I’m barely satisfied with the final, published version, let alone a draft. Do people provide useful commentary on drafts?

    Does anyone know how religious studies and religious history journals look on draft pre-publication should I reconsider my interest in disseminating drafts?

    And does anyone know whether Dialogue, JMH, and BYUS attempt to maintain copyright? I’d be fine with posting PDFs of published work on this SSRN.

  14. John Mansfield on November 13, 2007 at 3:16 pm

    It’s an interesting time for journals. One in my field recently has provided an option that authors can pay $1500 to have their articles freely and perpetually available online to non-subscribers. It is easy to imagine the financing of the whole enterprise shifting from readers to authors.

  15. Nate Oman on November 13, 2007 at 3:27 pm

    smb: I have no idea what the norm is about pre-publciation circulation in religious studies. In law, some people post working papers some do not. One common strategy is to post a quite short piece on SSRN that lays out what will become a larger project. The idea behind this piece is that it advertises your current research to interested readers, allows you to stake a claim to a particular topic (allowing, e.g., for people doing conferences etc. to say “Isn’t smb working on something about…), and — most importantly — providing a way of getting feedback on ideas.

    With one exception, I have only posted papers to SSRN that are either already published or else have already been accepted for publication. The one exception was a preliminary study of civil disputes in church courts. I plan on posting the final, much longer, version of the paper once it is accepted for publication.

    I know that Dialogue does not take copyright in works that it publishes. I don’t know about BYUS or the JMHS. However, even journals that retain copyright are likely to give authors a non-exclusive lisence allowing unlimited electronic dissemination. Indeed, it is in the journal’s best interest to do so.

  16. Sterling on November 14, 2007 at 12:06 am

    From what I have heard, Pronetos is better than SSRN. Users can create disciplinary groups without having to wait for SSRN to give clearance. Pronetos does a good job of tracking versions for documents, so that you can see the history of edits. Starting today, I hear, Pronetos has started a peer-review system. This will be important to the professors wanting to convince their tenure review committees that Web 2.0 is worth their time. Do we have any idea on which of these two web sites is signing up more users than the other?

    If anyone out there is interested in the future of collaborate research, I would say watch for the upcoming releases of Zotero. Users will soon be able to share their digital research notes online.

  17. Nate Oman on November 14, 2007 at 11:38 am

    There are about 220 scholars using Pronetos. There are over 83,000 authors who have posted to SSRN. For what it is worth I think that at least in many disciplines SSRN as a first mover will enjoy market dominance for the forseeable future.

  18. Richard Livingston on November 14, 2007 at 6:07 pm

    Nate,

    I don\’t like mentioning titles, because it can immediately come off as arrogant self-promoting, but in this case it\’s probably appropriate. I\’m the President of the newly organized Claremont Mormon Studies Student Association (CMSSA), and since you specifically called out CGU, I feel obliged to respond. We are directly affiliated with–i.e., operate under the auspices of–the School of Religion, and work closely with Richard Bushman as well as the Council for LDS Studies. I think I can safely speak for my friends and colleagues here at CGU and say that this is an idea that has some great potential. I personally share some of SMB\’s concerns (#13), but I don\’t think those worries are severe enough to warrant dropping the idea.

    Still, if this is really going to develop into something like what you\’ve described in your post, I think it will only be with the support and advertising of groups like MHA, SMPT, Mormon Scholars in the Humanities, The Maxwell Institute, Sunstone, Dialogue, etc. If you can get them on board (and knowing many of the people who sit on those boards, I doubt that you\’d meet much resistance), I\’m sure that as a collective body of Mormon Studies organizations, this is something that just might be realizable. Obviously, I can only speak for CMSSA though, but I think we\’d be happy to promote and support such an initiative. For example, we should have our website up and running this weekend, and we\’d be willing to provide a listing to SSRN or Pronetos or arXiv (or whatever site it turns out to be).

    I\’d be glad to discuss this with you offline if you think that would be helpful.

    -Richard T. Livingston

  19. Rosalynde Welch on November 15, 2007 at 3:46 pm

    The SSRN hub you envision would also be fabulously useful to independent scholars like me, without university-affiliated library privileges and the community function of an academic department. I’ll have to contact BYU Studies and Element, and figure out how to make .pdf files, and I could add a couple of my things.

  20. Chris Blanchard on December 7, 2007 at 4:19 pm

    Nate: thanks for the mention of Pronetos. One of the very intentional goals of Pronetos as a company, is to increase diversity in scholarship. To do that, the site has to be organic – immediately responsive to the needs of the community. SO – you note an important distinction between SSRN, and Pronetos. If you want a group with a Mormon focus of some sort – religious studies, literature, history – you can create that group in Pronetos, give the group whatever title you like, invite any scholars you like, and post whatever papers you like to the site – with no waiting for someone to approve your request. SSRN is a good resource, with backing from many important institutions. What SSRN is not, in our view, is as responsive to the needs of scholars as they could be. Hence, enter Pronetos to fill that void. So for now, yes – large discrepancy in number of users, but we hope our open platform and ever growing portfolio of tools will bring scholars to the site for the long haul.