Saturday, November 15, 2008

An elegant bibliographical solution

The chambers of a nautilus are arranged according to an approximate logarithmic spiral that can be calculated in polar coordinates according to this simple formula:

r = ae

where r represents the radial coordinate, θ represents the angular coordinate, e is the base of natural logarithms, and a and b are constants that (1) are arbitrary in modeling and (2) are empirically determined in real-world applications of logarithmic spirals.

I post this picture of the nautilus, which graces the banner for BioLaw: Law and the Life Sciences, because it is beautiful. It reminds us that beautiful things are often beautiful because they work. The nautilus and its relatives, after all, have cruised the seas for half a billion years with very few evolutionary adaptations.

For technical details, see Wikipedia's excellent articles on logarithmic spirals and polar coordinates. Extra intellectual credit goes to readers who tackle the article on spherical coordinates as well.

Jeff Harrison has finally found a reason to like SSRN. I demur, if only because the result he advocates would be ugly.

Jeff snickers — correctly, in my opinion — at the true motivation of law schools that now promote their faculty exclusively in terms of SSRN citations. Jeff thinks that these schools are motivated by a desire to maximize their faculties' collective SSRN downloads. But he lauds SSRN-only citations for their incidental effect on the signaling value of law review placements. On balance, Jeff thinks that the reduction of student law review editors' influence outweighs any reinforcement of law schools' excessive reliance on SSRN download statistics. Hence his surprising title, "Yes to SSRN."

Both Jeff and the law schools he backhandedly compliments are overlooking the real purpose of listing faculty publications. The whole point of legal bibliography is to communicate information. Primarily, it must be said, bibliographies convey information about the content of the books and articles listed and where those items can be found. If readers infer something about the quality of those items strictly from the identity of their publishers, with any degree of accuracy vel non, that isn't something that the bibliographic artist can or should control.

In other words, tell them what it is, and tell them where to find it. SSRN links provide another way of finding some (though not all) legal scholarship. The trick is to provide SSRN links without wrecking traditional legal bibliography or telegraphing, too transparently, your law school's yearning for more downloads.

In crafting individual and collective bibliographies, law schools should follow the citation forms and norms that prevail throughout the legal profession. No one disputes the proper way of citing Supreme Court cases. You cite Harper v. Virginia Department of Taxation according to its volume and first page in United States Reports, plus the year of decision. Thus: 509 U.S. 86 (1993). You can find Harper quite a few places on the Web for free. Copying and pasting the entire case name, including its citation, into a Google search field, will generate the full list of options. I suppose that you could insist on typing out a complete URL, such as, for the benefit of a technologically illiterate reader who doesn't know how to conduct a Google search but, amazingly, does know how to type a URL into her or his browser's address field. Then again, slapping a string of 70+ characters, including numbers and punctuation marks, into your bibliography is likelier to dissuade your reader from looking up Harper in the first place.

The beauty of HTML is that you can bury ugly URLs into links. You can cite Harper v. Virginia Department of Taxation, 509 U.S. 86 (1993), like a normal lawyer, and still give your online reader the benefit of the link to one of many free sites listing the entire text of this case.

I now offer an example drawn from my own home page at the University of Louisville School of Law. I have in hand the reprint from this article:
Biolaw: Cracking the Code, 56 Kan. L. Rev. 1029 (2008)
Note how I've gone ahead and embedded the SSRN link into the name of the article. I suppose I could add the SSRN address,, to the citation, but it would be ugly. Ugly citations don't invite anyone to look things up. And I suppose I could replace the conventional law review citation, 56 Kan. L. Rev. 1029 (2008), with the SSRN address,, but most readers would assume that this item had not yet been published in a traditional law review.

SSRN's URLs could be even worse. If you type into your browser, that address will actually lead you to an even more unwieldy URL, For its part, SSRN promotes its own citation form, which combines all the aforementioned particles of information with some further SSRN-specific tidbits:
Biolaw: Cracking the Code. Kansas Law Review, Vol. 56, No. 4, 2008; University of Louisville School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper Series No. 2008-12. Available at SSRN:
I've left out the clickable link to the SSRN address because SSRN also left it out. This isn't affirmatively ugly, but it is a long-winded mess.

For my money, which I've put where my mouth is by designing my own online bibliography this way, I'll stick with a citation form that looks just as it would in a legal document, enhanced with a simple HTML link:
Jim Chen, Biolaw: Cracking the Code, 56 Kan. L. Rev. 1029 (2008)


Blogger Jeffrey Harrison said...

Nice Jim. I just to clarify two things. First, I assume you are not equating the elegance of the nautilus with citation systems for legal scholarship.

My second point deals with the harms of pumping up SSRN downloads as opposed to an elitist law review placement system. I think the word is out about SSRN downloads. They are clearly subject to manipulation and a clever title -- like a clever book title -- can result in a download -- much as the clever book title may mean the book is pulled from the library shelf.(Both of which are likely to be cast aside.)

While the word is out on SSRN downloads, the law review selection and citation systems perpetuate an elitist bias. Institutional authority influences the selection process and, I believe, whether an article will be read and cited.

Thus, I think SSRN downloads (ironically, perhaps because there is no elitist bias) are scoffed at and are far less likely to be misused than law review citations.

Of course, as you say, law review rankings only reflect on article quality if we let it. So true but as the Woody Allen character said at the end of "Annie Hall" I guess we need the eggs.

11/15/2008 5:15 PM  

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