I was interested in this discussion at Prawfs between bigwigs at SSRN and bePress about the relative merits of these two important services for viewing legal scholarship online, and was particularly intrigued by Bernie Black’s explanation of why you can’t download a paper from SSRN without first visiting the paper’s abstract page. I’ve always found this element to SSRN kind of annoying: I want people to read my papers, and I don’t want them to get lost or give up at the abstract page.
So why does SSRN require the abstract page? If I understand Bernie correctly, the goal is to ensure that each counted download is a reliable signal of a reader’s genuine desire to read that particular paper:
SSRN takes great care to ensure that paper downloads are an accurate measure of reader interest in an author’s work. First, we ensure that only informed decisions to view a full text of a particular paper, rather than uninformed explorations triggered by a catchy or vague title, count as a download. Every download starts with a reader visiting the paper’s “abstract page”. Only readers who still want the paper, after seeing the abstract, can download the paper. In general, only one out of three abstract views result in a download.
Interesting. I wonder, though, is a decision to download a paper from an abstract page really an “informed decision”? Isn’t it just based on the title, the author, and a catchy abstract? And if the one-out-of-three ratio is pretty widely shared across different papers, which in my experience it is, is the abstract page really informing readers versus just making it harder to see the paper itself?
To be clear, I think having an abstract page has some advantages for some readers. For example, it makes it easier to surf around without using lots of bandwith. If you’re on a slow connection, it makes it easier to look around without waiting for .pdfs to load. But it’s not obvious to me that the abstract page means that the downloads are more meaningful. (I should add the caveat that I don’t know if download numbers are ever meaningful, but that’s a debate for another day.)
On a more cynical note, I wonder how much of SSRN’s business model hinges on abstract visits. SSRN is a for-profit business, and in addition to bringing law to the people they presumably also want to maximize their revenue. As best I can tell, the abstract page is where SSRN posts its advertisements: Every SSRN abstract page has one of those annoying “Ads by Goooooogle” strips down the right hand side of the page that posts a series of topic-specific advertisements.
I don’t know how much SSRN makes from its Google AdWords advertising, but the amount might be significant. People who view SSRN abstracts are a very specific marketing target group, and SSRN probably gets on the order of 100,000 abstract page reloads a day. (Or more, perhaps much more.) As a result, getting rid of the abstract page presumably might lead to smaller profits for the owners of SSRN, a group that I believe includes Bernie Black. Of course, whether that is an important part of SSRN’s business model or just a bonus resulting from SSRN’s focus on meaningful downloads is something that only the SSRN folks can answer.