One of the joys of blogging is the opportunity to relate issues and news items that do not seem to have an obvious connection. Here the only connection is that both involve SSRN — the Social Science Research Network, an open access depository for articles in the social sciences that is a wonderful resource on policy and legal issues.
First I came across this complaint, on a law professor’s blog, about the presence of Google advertisements in SSRN and the odd juxtapositions those ads sometimes create with the content of the paper. Specifically, Professor Leiter reports on a paper dealing sympathetically with a recent labor dispute at a university that was framed with ads for organizations that purported to help keep campuses union-free. The author was, not surprisingly, upset that his article would become the unintended vehicle for a point of view he does not support. Prof. Leiter also mention the uncomfortable relationship some ads seem to have with his own article on religion and law.
One of the realities of open access, of course, is that someone has to pay for the server space, upkeep, and the like. SSRN has a complex funding model that includes deposit fees, institutional subscriptions and — here is the rub — advertisements. Do the advantages of open access outweigh the discomfort that advertisements accompanying scholarly work can cause? I think they do, but read on.
Another recent article in SSRN broadens the question raised by these advertisements to an issue of gatekeeping and elitism. In “Evaluate me! Conflicted thoughts on gatekeeping and legal scholarships new age,” Paul Horowitz explicitly raises the question of how much open access to scholarship disrupts the traditional function of publication to certify and validate scholars and scholarship. Much open access material, of course, has already been peer-reviewed and accepted through the traditional channels of scholarship. But there is a whole new form of scholarly communications out there — informal discussion on blogs and listservs that are often the midwife of formal scholarship. Some may see this as a threat to traditional forms of evaluation and quality control; advertisements seem like a tangible reminder of that threat. But others will see informal and open web communications as a renewal of creativity and an opportunity to democratize the process of scholarship as well as its results. What do you think?