Thursday, August 18, 2005

The State of Scholarly Communication

One of the constant natters in academe is who is on first (no contractions here!). There is continual commentary at the undergraduate level about how lousy this or that rating system is. US News in all its' iterations comes in for some well deserved criticism.

The ranking of undergraduate programs involves many factors. Part of the decision on undergraduate programs is based on perceived prestige. But a lot of it depends on intangibles - location, ambience, etc. The US News rankings or the other ratings services try to capture those factors however imperfectly. Having worked with independent colleges for more than 30 years, I can't tell you how many times I have heard a president comment "The US News rankings are a bunch of baloney" and then bring his admission staff together when they don't get ranked somewhere.

But at the graduate level the ranking systems might be a bit less complex. Ultimately, graduate programs devolve down to the where get and where gone factors. Do other faculty members use the scholarly output of a graduate program in their own teaching and research? Ultimately, scholars are supposed to be a community that trades ideas - so looking at the market for ideas is pretty sound. The other side of the equation is what happens to the graduates - where do they get placed? For a lot of reasons many academics discount that factor.

So a couple of days ago at Tax Prof Blog a discussion got started about using the Social Science Research Network as an indicator of quality. Under the proposal which was originally made in an article in the Indiana Law Journal, schools could be ranked by citations in the SSRN. The SSRN is an insanely great tool. It is an electronic resource for scholars to vet their papers with colleagues anywhere in the world. It is an easily searchable database that serious scholars and even policy wonks can use for a very modest charge to think about issues. In today's TPB there are some responses to the idea.

One other comment, I discovered the TPB quite by accident. But it is a really good resource. It is a mix of three things - all of which are useful. First, it presents a pretty wide range of scholarly work in the tax area in short abstracts but with great links. Second, it presents some fairly frequent links to policy discussions (and as importantly links to their presentations or papers) such as the current commision on tax reform. Third, it presents profiles of individuals who are in the field and their scholarly work. In addition, the site( when you are not just rushing through the RSS summaries) has a bunch of additional resources. It is a bit weighted to law schools - afterall tax systems are made up of laws - so that is not unexpected - but it is an excellent resource for even people, like me, who did doctoral work in the area, remains interested in the field but are not in any way a scholar in the field. Paul Caron, who is at the University of Cincinnati, is the inspiration behind this project and he deserves a real vote of thanks.

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