If a PDF Falls in the Forest …

Screen Shot 2014-05-12 at 6.15.33 PM I’m in Europe this week meeting with Isidro F. Aguillo (@isidroaguillo) and the #webometrics team and couldn’t help but love the irony of the recent World Bank report, available only in PDF format, about how no one reads their PDFs (which is quite an interesting meta observation). Whether you think this is another reveal into the bigger issues of publicly funded research or simply a poor choice of publishing formats, it has started an interesting conversation about sharing. Christopher Ingraham (@_cingraham, @WashingtonPost) in The Solutions to All Our Problems May be Buried in PDFs That Nobody Reads recently contemplated whether or not our questions have been answered or the answers have not been found.

We decided to dig into the SSRN eLibrary data to see how the World Bank’s Research Paper Series stacks up – and the numbers are pretty impressive:
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If you change the Sort By criteria in the drop-down box to Downloads, Ascending you will see that only 4* World Bank papers submitted to SSRN have not been downloaded vs. 517 in the World Bank report. We haven’t done a paper for paper comparison but this is a significant difference in usage.

What does this all mean? It certainly doesn’t mean SSRN is better. What it does mean is that SSRN serves a significantly broader, multi-interdisciplinary audience than any single institutional repository (IR). It also doesn’t mean IRs are bad. They serve an important archival purpose and many users start a search with the organization they graduated or are affiliated; some may even not know about SSRN (#gasp).

The question is how do we best work together to provide the easiest pathways and proper incentives for the authors so that overall usage of research is maximized. We currently work closely with several IRs but it’s not enough and other broader issues are topics for another day.

Ingraham also touches on the important question of research being written for purposes other than sharing knowledge and moving ideas forward. Without a doubt, thousands of policy related reports are published each year that do nothing but satisfy a funder mandate and then hide under a very un-Google friendly rock. We are delighted to have delivered 1.2 million downloads of World Bank research to real users and we know if a World Bank PDF falls in the SSRN forest, it does make a sound.
*Note: The links without a blue dog-eared page icon do not have a downloadable PDF.