Friday, September 18, 2009


This is more properly a comment but since Moneylaw is close to dormant I decided to upgrade to an actual post. I read with interest the most recent posts about tax faculty rankings. I did this even though I have complained about drawing any inferences from the rankings other than SSRN may be pretty good at counting.

Beyond my usual concerns about the emails we all get that we have made the top 10 in one of SSRN's zillions of categories and its use of our works to sell advertising, I am also concerned about what those who post the lists believe they are communicating. I do not mean to pick just on the most recent tax listings because I have seen this with other listings.

I see two problems but maybe I am misunderstanding. As I understand it, a tax professor with, say, 10,000 downloads may have written a couple of tax articles that were moderately downloaded and then have 8000 downloads in other areas. In effect, the number of downloads, if it means anything, does not mean how widely downloaded (much less read or relied on) that author was as a tax professor. If you doubt this take a look at the downloads for the top two tax professors and see how many of the articles are actually tax articles. It would be possible to write one article on tax that was downloaded once and be ranking as at the top and, in fact, pull the entire tax department with you. I seems to me that any school wishing to move up could just ask its most downloaded scholar in any field to allow him or herself to be listed as a tax professor and added as a coauthor to one article. Am I wrong on this? By the way this is the charitable interpretation because I cannot tell whether to be considered one has to be a self-professed tax professor and have uploaded a tax article in the past year or just pass one of these tests. If it is the latter, any inferences to be drawn are even more sketchy.

The second problem is with the totals for schools. Isn't this somehow influenced by the size of the school and the number of people there who teach tax? Why not take the downloads of actual tax articles and divide by the number of tax faculty. And, of course, even this leaves out other types of works.

My sense is that if these SSRN rankings were subject to some kind of truth in advertising standards they would be found to be misleading because they seem to have so little to do with the actual tax productivity of a tax faculty or even the interest others have in that faculty's output. And, if the thought that goes into these postings were found in a scholarly article I doubt it would be publishable. In fact, the only place I have seen a similar willingness to stray from what would be acceptable care as a scholar is when academics perform as expert witnesses.


Blogger Jeff Lipshaw said...

Like all proxies it has to be taken with a grain of salt. I say that as a guy who has 2,000 downloads on SSRN from a trifle of an essay (though it has been cited once in a serious article!).

9/18/2009 10:35 AM  
Blogger Jeffrey Harrison said...

Of course and grains of salt are cheap and easy to find. On the matter of 2000 downloads for a "trifle of an essay." Could it be that it tells us something about how overblown many articles have become and that maybe we should all be writing "trifles of essays?"

9/18/2009 11:17 AM  

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