Yale, Russia and Sanctions: when your paper goes viral…

Yale, Russia, and Sanctions: when a paper goes viral…

Every researcher dreams that his or her work will make an impact: however, despite all the late nights and hard work many papers can fail to garner much attention, either within their discipline or across the broader media landscape. But what’s it like when you hit your paper right out of the park?

If you’ve been studying the rankings on SSRN, you’ll have seen one paper rocketing up the charts. Business Retreats and Sanctions Are Crippling the Russian Economy was released on July 20th. The paper has been downloaded nearly 90,000 times, it’s abstract has been viewed online over 300,000 times and in early September it was in the number three slot in the SSRN Top 10,000 Papers Ranking.

The paper’s authors, who include Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, founder and CEO of Yale School of Management’s Chief Executive Leadership Institute, and CELI Research Director Steven Tian, examined how Russia has been weathering the economic storm caused by its illegal invasion of Ukraine and the sanctions that followed.

By looking at a huge range of alternative data sources to the Russian official numbers, the report’s authors paint a dark picture of Russia’s economic performance, and the paper’s abstract on SSRN says: “From our analysis, it becomes clear: business retreats and sanctions are catastrophically crippling the Russian economy.“

The paper has had widespread pick-up in the media, from Foreign Policy and CNBC to Fortune, the Washington Post and The New York Times.

And it’s not just media that are taking an interest. The paper’s authors were invited to Washington by the U.S. State Department to brief the foreign press on their findings (see picture above.)

It was tough to get into its author’s diaries to speak to them – SSRN’s blog had to reschedule because, among other outlets, the authors had to speak to the BBC – but eventually we were able to grab a quick call on Zoom to catch up, which found Sonnenfeld and Tian very much in the eye of a media storm.

“The Washington Post article drove an awful lot of traffic to SSRN and that got caught up by everyone – in Asia, North American and Europe,” said Sonnenfeld.

Sonnenfeld is quick to point out that both he and Tian are part of multidisciplinary and multilingual department, and so the paper was very much a group effort.

“There are 42 people here who are experts in econometrics tools, corporate governance, and political history, and can cut across the different related domains,“ said Sonnenfeld.“

“Just as important is that we have ten languages outside of English: there are nationals from Russia, Poland, German and Finland – as well as native speakers of Mandarin, Japanese, Italian, French and Spanish,” he said.

The team provided much needed on-the-ground expertise, so the research paper’s data comes from local sources or people on the scene. They looked at shuttered malls, and at a lot of original archival evidence.

“We have different people to help us get access to data that’s suppressed,” said Sonnenfeld. “The US Treasury has conceded that we have better data than anyone in Government, because we are not reliant on Russia’s official data,” he said.

Sonnenfeld and Tian have also met with the top economists at the IMF: “They’re telling us that we have access to better data than they do – we salute them for being so open.”

Russia has actually provided pretty decent economics data for decades, according to Sonnenfeld and Tian, but since the invasion on February 24th Putin’s government has been suppressing core national income statistics, which misled many commentators about the initial impact of sanctions.

“Russia’s claims are unsupported by statistics. So professionals have been bewildered. In response, when Russia was the seller, we went to the buyer, when Russia was the buyer, we went to the seller, or we spoke to trade associations, so we have been able to reconstruct Russia’s economic performance,” said Sonnenfeld.

The paper was a hit almost instantly, first seeing high downloads on SSRN, then being shared heavily on Social Media, and finally being amplified by news media.

“It had an immediate viral take-off on SSRN, we were caught unprepared as the paper started to do well. The Washington Post put out a story and that accelerated it even further,” said Sonnenfeld, speaking incredibly quickly, as you’d expect from someone who has been doing media interviews pretty much non-stop since the paper took off.

“This has been viral through our professional networks. You can go to my Twitter feed and usually they’ll give me a hard time for what tie I’m wearing –  but we don’t have negative comments for this paper. We have never received such unanimous support. We got the truth out on SSRN,” said Sonnenfeld.

Of course this kind of media attention takes its toll. It’s hard to complete the research when you have to keep getting back to the media.

“We have had several thousand media approaches – they’re coming in roughly 30 a day. The media expect 24/7 responses, so I’m day time and Steven is the night time – there’s plenty of calls from Europe,” said Sonnenfeld.

The authors expect to publish their work in a peer reviewed journal eventually – but are currently struggling to find time to prepare a submission.

“We do have plans to submit to a journal in due course, but they keep getting derailed…“ said Tian.

Given the urgency of the Russian invasion, Sonnenfeld makes clear that publishing a preprint on SSRN was the best way to get the work out quickly.

“If we had spent time going through the two years of a review process we would miss the historic moment,” said Sonnenfeld. “But on SSRN we got it out fast and comprehensively, and we are “reviewed’ by thousands,” he said.

For Tian, one surprise has been the scale of the audience that SSRN has helped to deliver for their work: “What has shocked me is how global the SSRN audience is – from Asia and Europe, the credibility and the brand means you not only have a community of scholars, you have all this outside reach.  SSRN is a gold standard, it confers a priceless credibility. It’s a unique clearing house,” he said.

And with that Sonnenfeld starts putting on a tie for his next interview with a Polish media outlet, saying, “I have to look smart for that one…”

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