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Learning the Latest

So you want find out what your professor has been thinking about lately? You want to know what’s been on his or her mind? Here is your chance. (More after the jump.)

Law professors have places where they post works in progress as well as their other recent publications. These working papers or research papers are posted to either of two repositories, SSRN (Social Science Research Network, nicknamed Napster for Nerds) or bepress (Berkeley Electronic Press). Each repository makes the papers available as PDF documents on the Web at no charge to you.

Why do law professors do this?

The law is moving fast. New issues and new ways of thinking are developing more and more quickly. Law professors often seek feedback from their peers before they put their work into final print form. That is, in order for them to contribute effectively to the conversation, they need to consider the widest possible variety of perspectives and positions. Online repositories enable this kind of interaction and feedback.

Aside from learning about my professors, are there any other reasons why I would want to check these repositories? Yes, if you are attempting to write a piece on a recent topic or a piece on a topic that somehow might be preempted by the recent work of another, you will want to be sure to check both repositories to see if such work is in progress.

Okay, I am hooked; how do I find these research papers?

That’s easy. Go to http://www.ssrn.com and click on Search. There, after you enter your professor’s name, up will come a list of what he or she has posted to the site, in order of popularity. That is, those papers that have been downloaded the most appear first. One can easily click on sort by date to isolate the most recent works.

To try out the competitor, go to “Scholarship at Penn Law.” There you can enter the last name of your Penn Law author/professor. (You’ll notice that this URL is not explicitly part of bepress. That’s okay; the Law School is a member of NELLCO, a consortium that contracts with bepress).

But what if I want to find papers by topic?

On the SSRN search page, there are different search options. For instance, the abstract search enables the search of title, abstract, and keywords. SSRN itself does not have the capability to search full-text. However, that is likely to be an advantage as the SSRN search result will have fewer false leads. And, if worst comes to worst, one can use Google to get around that. That is, the SSRN and bepress databases are searchable full text on Google, but the search must be for a very narrow and unusual term or there will be an excessive number of results.

On bepress, there is a way to search all the papers on NELLCO and on bepress, full text. This advanced searching capability is much more powerful and flexible than the searching capability of SSRN’s search engine.

Which system is better for me to use?

The most complete listing of faculty papers is available through SSRN. If you are trying to locate very recent research papers by subject, it is best to use both search databases. Some law schools subscribe only to bepress, and others subscribe only to SSRN. A few, like Penn Law, subscribe to both.

Have some fun with it. You are bound to learn something.