Saturday, March 24, 2007

No Ranking is Too Trivial to Spark Commentary from Folks with Time to Burn...

...especially if they work in Columbus, Ohio it seems!  SSRN downloads are not, contra my colleague Bernie Black and Blog Emperor Caron, very good measures of scholarly impact, but they seem to attract interest, and so in the catholic spirit of my law school ranking site I posted a list of the 15 most downloaded law faculties for 2006.  I explicitly removed from the count the provocatively titled paper "Fuck" by Christopher Fairman (which I blogged about here and which will now appear in the Cardozo Law Review), who teaches at Ohio State, and for the obvious reason:  its unusually high download count was due to its provocative title, not its scholarly content. 

Amazingly, some people (primarily, though not exclusively, from Ohio State) objected to the exclusion of Fairman's paper, which was downloaded some 17,000 times in 2006--more than the most downloaded law professor on SSRN (Lucian Bebchuk at Harvard), who had dozens of papers available for download in 2006, and far more than any other paper by any other law professor who posted papers on SSRN in 2006.  If Ohio State had been included in the list of the 15 most downloaded faculties for 2006, it would have been because 90% of its downloads were due to this one paper.  No other school's rank was so much a function of one paper by one person.  SSRN is a pretty weak measure of scholarly performance--as I made very clear--but it is just a joke if one paper by one person essentially determines a school's rank.  (Maybe it is a joke?)

Although this was obvious to everyone else I had ever heard from on this subject previously--indeed, I lost track of how many people cited Fairman's paper to me as evidence that SSRN downloads are totally worthless as a measure of scholarly significance--one of Chris's colleagues went so far as to imply that I might be  prejudiced against gays and feminists, on the grounds that she had found a couple of blogs in which self-identified gay and feminist scholars discussed Chris's paper.  I, of course, have no idea of the sexual orientation or political views of those scholars who download papers from SSRN, and it is surely true that some of those who downloaded a paper called "Fuck" did so for scholarly, as opposed to voyeuristic, reasons.  None of that changes the point that the best explanation for why the paper was downloaded as much as it was had to do with its title, not its scholarly importance or impact.

Another Ohio State professor, Ruth Colker, says (falsely) that I "excluded from [the] download list the only piece that is on a civil rights related topic, and included all the corporate pieces."  In fact, many civil rights articles accounted for many downloads at many different schools; Fairman's article was, again obviously, not excluded because of its subject-matter.  (SSRN is utilized disproportionately by scholars working in corporate law, law and economics, and intellectual property, but that is not the same, contra Professor Colker, as a "bias.")

I should add that I have a very high opinion of the Ohio State law faculty, and it is one of many indications of the limitations of SSRN downloads that a school like OSU did not perform better in the survey of 2006 downloads.

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