Larry Solum and Dan Drezner are having a minor contretemps that touches on one of my pet peeves; the lack of a one-stop-shop for working papers in political science. Drezner takes issue with a recent Slate essay by Steven Johnson which argues that Google is pushing academics towards writing (PDF-able) articles rather than books.
Johnson sets this up as an either/or question—online papers or books. In point of fact, for most academics this is a progression. First you circulate your ideas in draft form, then as a conference paper, then as an article, and then—maybe—publish a book.
But Solum gently dissents, suggesting that legal academics are going through a gentle revolution, in which online sources (and means of sorting through them) are becoming more and more important. The SSRN (Social Science Resource Network), a free online repository of working papers and published papers, is playing an increasingly important role in shunting ideas around the legal academy. Furthermore, bloggers provide an important filter, separating out the gold from the dross. I can vouch for this claim – I read the summaries of new SSRN papers in Solum’s Legal Theory Blog every day (lawyers write a lot on the issues I’m working on).
There isn’t much real disagreement between Solum and Drezner; as both acknowledge, their arguments are shaped by discipline-specific experiences. And that’s the point that I want to develop. Frankly, I’m jealous of the lawyers. To the best of my knowledge, political scientists like Drezner and I have no equivalent to the SSRN. Columbia University have set up a sort-of-similar service called CIAO, but it’s pretty spotty, and is only available by subscription anyway. There are websites with papers for the big annual conferences, and a few subject specific sites but there’s nothing that really brings the discipline together. And it’s not only political science that has this problem. My impression is that the only social science that has really gotten its act together is economics; I don’t think that sociology, geography, anthropology and so on have SSRN equivalents either.
This dearth of a clearing house goes hand-in-hand with a disciplinary culture in political science that de-emphasizes working papers. Lawyers usually seem happy to put out draft journal articles as working papers for everyone to read. Political scientists tend, in my experience, to be much more suspicious of the idea. By and large, they don’t want to put out their big journal articles as working papers before they’re accepted, in case someone rips off their big idea and beats them to publication. And there are other problems; some journal editors are rather sniffy about accepting articles that have previously appeared in working paper series.
So why is it that lawyers, b-school types and economists have SSRN, and we have nothing? I’m not sure I have an answer, but here are some suggestions (all of which have flaws).
- Differential exposure to technology. As Solum points out, lawyers have been using Westlaw and Lexis-Nexis for a long, long time – they’re used to having everything on line. Political scientists haven’t. Flaw: political scientists aren’t Luddites; why haven’t they set up an equivalent (or jumped onto the SSRN bandwagon, as soon as they realized what a good wheeze it was?
- Path dependence. Chance events in the development of legal academics and political science have created deep-rooted disciplinary structures that shape publishing patterns in both fields, which would be difficult and costly to reform, even if political scientists recognize that they’re in a suboptimal situation. Flaw: plausible, but unfalsifiable without more specific arguments about why these patterns have persisted and reproduced themselves.
- External resources. SSRN’s financial backers seem to have used the series as a way to get street-cred with financial analysts and the like. They’ve probably poured a substantial amount of money into setting SSRN up. Nobody is likely to do the same for other social science disciplines. Flaw: political science may not be as commercially attractive to outsiders; but there are a lot of foundations and other punters who might well be prepared to put money into a SSRN equivalent. And we’re not talking about a huge fortune – enough to ire a couple of organizers, rent some server space, and direct punters to the various working paper series across the web.
I’m sure there are other possible explanations.
Addendum: This is probably a good place to note that Chris Lawrence is trying to get a pol-sci disciplinary newsblog up and running; it sounds like a very worthwhile project.