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April 04, 2020


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Paul Horwitz

I'm slow off the mark, and even slower in the morning, but I'm a trifle confused. I looked at the paper abstract and at the paper. The abstract says it was ghost-written for him for money. The paper, which uses a citation style that is normal for general essays and abnormal for law reviews, has Prof. Frye's name as the author with a footnote to the name noting that it was written by someone else for a payment of $100. The keywords on the SSRN abstract page include "conceptual art" and "trolling."

I'm not criticizing Prof. Frye. He is seemingly acting fully above-board. One can be interested in his project or not. But is SSRN's action really all that arbitrary? I don't know whether there is a statement somewhere in the various FAQs and terms of use and so on that addresses work not written by the submitting author. The closest I can come is the statement in the terms of use that the submitting "author" must certify and warrant that "all information contained in the posted content is true, original and your own work or work you are authorized to submit." If it was not written by Prof. Frye, it certainly doesn't meet the first criterion, and although I can imagine an argument that it meets the second, I can also imagine SSRN having some reasonable concern that paying an essay service a hundred bucks doesn't constitute an "authoriz[ation] to submit" it. Indeed, if it *was* written by a professional essay-writing service, I could imagine SSRN having reasonable concerns that the ghost-writer him- or herself could have copied without authorization from other sources.

Of course it might *actually* have been written by Prof. Frye, quite cleverly, with a careful effort to make it look like a ghostwritten paper prepared by a general essay-writing service: a disjointed abstract, a citation style not used in most legal scholarship, awkward language ("Little did she know that she would later be arraigned and tasked on proving the originality of 'Frozen'") and unusual capitalization perhaps suggesting English as a second language ("Televisions and Radios in Belgium were also not to play the song"), poor grammar, stilted language, weak argument, and so on--including, not least, the fact that the essay contradicts the title. If so, that would not be above-board as such. But of course it *would* be clever, and we certainly would have had fair warning, not only from the genearl nature of the exercise but from the specific keywords "conceptual art" and "trolling." But surely SSRN could reasonably conclude that "conceptual art," however wonderful, is a different genre from scholarship, and that "trolling" falls within the category of "satire."

I share your frustration at some of SSRN's classifications, both as a matter of policy and in practice. I like writing review essays, and a serious review essay should be classified as scholarship and not a "summary book review," but at least as a first cut it doesn't always happen that way. I can imagine other areas of disagreement about either specific SSRN policies or how they are applied. But this doesn't seem like a clear case of either outrageous policy or arbitrary application. At a minimum, it seems like a case in which SSRN was faced with unusual circumstances and made a reasonable decision.

Of course much or all of this seems to be the very point of Prof. Frye's exercise. Is it plagiarism? Is it not plagiarism? Is it fine as long as the alleged name of the ghost-writer is identified? Is it still scholarship? (The body of the paper itself is not really especially scholarly or good, but if SSRN excluded every scholarly paper that isn't really scholarly or good, there would be many fewer papers on SSRN.) *Was* any of this actually written by someone else? Does our inability to know for certain, other than indirectly by way of the certification of authorship and originality that Prof. Frye made when he submitted the paper, raise deep and troubling (or well-worn and banal) questions about the nature of originality? And so on. All of this might make it interesting, but it doesn't necessary make it "scholarly work." "Conceptual art" and "satire," or perhaps even "trolling," can be interesting too. A page of Swift is worth many a volume of the common run of scholarship; but it's still satire, not scholarship, no matter how interesting it is, and it wouldn't be unreasonable for SSRN to inform a modern-day Swift that there are many other places to publish that kind of work.

Surely all this is known to Prof. Frye, given his interest in the subject. I would think that he would either welcome the outcome here, or at least understand it as representing the established norms he is questioning by violating them (either by submitting someone else's not-especially-scholarly work or by making it look like someone else's not-especially-scholarly work)--which seems like a pretty good definition of "conceptual art," "trolling"--and "satire." There are many grounds for criticizing SSRN's policies and applications regarding classification, I'm sure. But this doesn't really seem like an illustration of that. It seems more like either an unusual case or an easy case, in either of which SSRN acted reasonably. But again, I may be missing something obvious. I often do, and especially when interpreting conceptual art.

Paul Horwitz

For completeness's sake, there's one more sentence I meant to include in my second paragraph, which is that even if there is no specific sentence addressing it, I would think that a service that distributes scholarly work doesn't really *need* an explicit statement to the effect that "we will not publish work written for hire by someone else." I would think that is a norm so common that it hardly needs stating.

Brian L. Frye

Thanks for this insightful comment, Paul! My message to SSRN: "Oh, please don't throw me in the briar patch."

Prof X

My issue with SSRN is how slowly it loads in the last year or so. I hardly use it anymore.

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