When Is the Best Time to Post a Paper Draft to SSRN?

I’ve been asked if authors should post law review article drafts to SSRN before or after a law journal accepts it. This post offers some brief thoughts about the considerations.

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Note 1: The pre-/post-placement decision may look different for articles seeking publication in peer review journals. Those journals may have more restrictive views of what constitutes first publication, impose embargoes, charge for open access, and impose more restrictive copyright policies–all of which may be implicated by SSRN posting.

Note 2: I usually (but not always!) prefer publishing my scholarly works through a third-party publisher. However, self-publication on SSRN without further third-party involvement is always an option (at least to tenured professors; in practice, pre-tenure folks may not have this luxury). The mental exercise is a valuable one: what value does a third-party publisher add, and is it worth any of the costs to find and work with them?

(I mean…as a blogger, I self-publish the vast majority of my total output).

Note 3: I personally prefer SSRN over other scholarly repositories for reasons I explain here, but I understand why that view is not universally shared. Many of the considerations in this post apply to any other pre-placement open access/public posting of a draft.

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I don’t post my paper drafts publicly until I feel the drafts are refined enough to handle public criticism. There’s always a risk that whatever I share publicly will trigger blowback–even if I label the piece as a draft that’s subject to change. Usually, the first version of a project that’s ready for broad public scrutiny is the version I circulate to the journals for placement.

It’s theoretically possible that a law journal will reject a piece because it’s been previously posted to SSRN. I’ve not seen that personally. The vast majority of law journals don’t seem to care about the timing of SSRN posting.

Occasionally, journals reach out to authors asking if they can publish an SSRN draft. That’s happened to me a couple of times, such as this piece. However, I don’t recommend using SSRN posting as a placement strategy.

I post to SSRN the draft I circulated for placement soon after I’ve placed it with a law journal because (1) the draft is sufficiently ready for public scrutiny, and (2) I can disclose the publisher in my posting, and potential readers will see that (such as in the email alerts sent to SSRN subscribers). I don’t have any data showing that disclosing the publisher’s identity boosts readership, so that disclosure may not matter much.

I typically update the SSRN posting with the final published version when it’s available (often a year after my initial posting), unless there’s a remaining embargo. I don’t wait for the final published version to post the paper to SSRN for the first time, due to the significant time delay between placement and publication. If I only posted the final published version to SSRN, my paper may be old news at that point; plus I would lose many months’ worth of potential citations (this is especially a problem with rapidly-moving topics, which is usually where I’m writing).

I’m sure there are other views on the timing question. I welcome your thoughts in the comments or by email.