Research in real time

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Gregory Gordon, managing director of SSRN and Knowledge Lifecycle, shares his thoughts on preprints and the benefits of early-stage research.

Tell us a little about your background and qualifications…

I’m an accountant by training and spent a number of years at KPMG. I left there to restructure a public software company as its chief financial officer (CFO), then I supported a merchant bank to build a healthcare company. At the same time, in 1994, I helped Mike Jensen and others start SSRN. My focus as its CFO was to get the company operating sustainably as quickly as possible, allowing us to deliver on our core ambition – to provide the ability to submit and download research content on the SSRN platform cost-free. I became president and chief executive officer two years later.

What does SSRN do, and what is your role?

SSRN is Elsevier’s preprint and early-stage research platform. It enables researchers around the world to openly share their work, so that it’s freely available to others in their field and the wider research community. SSRN allows users to both explore the latest uploaded research and receive email notifications, flagging recent research relevant to their projects and interests. This promotes discussion, collaboration and the exchange of ideas, which in turn helps to produce better research, more quickly. 

People often ask us what a preprint is and what we mean by early-stage research. We define this as an author's own write-up of research results and analysis that has not been peer reviewed, and it does not include any of the benefits of the publication process (such as formatting, copy-editing, technical enhancements, etc.). This stage of the research process is an opportunity to give a live update on a project, possibly to a funder and to like-minded researchers who may well be working on similar projects. It is for this reason that preprints and early-stage research are often credited with helping to encourage global collaboration. 

Nearly 1 million researchers and students across the world regularly use SSRN in this way, sharing to a community of 2.5 million unique visitors a month. We recently passed two significant milestones of growth: SSRN now has 1 million papers on its site and content on SSRN has now been downloaded over 200 million times. 

SSRN has also grown to become the most interdisciplinary service of its kind, representing the full research spectrum, including applied sciences, health sciences, humanities, life sciences, physical sciences and social sciences. We now have over 70 research networks dedicated to specific disciplines. We have also been working closely with our colleagues in Elsevier’s journals business and other publishers to add their journals and exciting new areas of research to SSRN. 

I was one of the founders of SSRN, and following its acquisition by Elsevier in 2016, I have continued to run SSRN as its managing director. In addition, I am the managing director of Knowledge Lifecycle Management, which allows me to look across Elsevier for opportunities to integrate early-stage research. For example, we have branded preprint servers for Cell Press and The Lancet on SSRN, and we work with over 800 journals from Elsevier and other publishers, to give their authors the option to easily share their research on SSRN prior to publication. 

What have been the biggest developments in scholarly publishing?

There have been three key developments. The first is the evolution of sharing early-stage research and preprints by virtually all journals and publishers. The ability to get a ‘first look’ at preprint content in the midst of the knowledge lifecycle – as it is moving from idea to working paper, to submission, and then finally to version-of-record – is incredibly exciting as new ideas can be shared earlier and better research can be produced faster. During the pandemic, we saw a significant increase in early-stage research being written and shared across all disciplines – COVID-19 was roughly one third of the increase we saw posted to SSRN, and this upward trend has continued in 2022.  

The second big development is something that Elsevier has done very well, which is to allow anyone submitting to a journal the option to seamlessly submit and share their research on the SSRN platform with minimal additional effort on their part – all they have to do is check a box. This ease of sharing eliminates the duplication of submission efforts on the researcher’s part and encourages the rapid dissemination of research.  

Lastly, what SSRN does uniquely is facilitate the cross-pollination of ideas. A paper posted to SSRN can be classified in multiple parts of the network. For example, an accounting paper on the Sarbanes-Oxley Act could be categorised under financial accounting, regulatory economics, securities law and sustainability. This cross-pollination of perspectives is one of the biggest and most interesting developments in scholarly publishing, and we at SSRN believe that sharing diverse disciplinary perspectives helps create new, innovative research, faster.

Are there any areas of scholarly publishing that you are particularly passionate about?

I am passionate about the role preprints can play in research, especially their ability to make the knowledge lifecycle more efficient. By posting your research to SSRN, it becomes discoverable earlier in the research lifecycle. Often, the time lag between submission and publication in a scholarly journal can be months. A preprint option gives authors the ability to quickly get their work-in-progress in front of the community in advance of the official version-of-record that has been fully vetted and peer reviewed. In this digital age, SSRN provides researchers an effective way to share their early-stage research and get virtually immediate feedback from the different communities. Preprints on many servers are assigned a digital object identifier (digital currency for a publication) and are fully citable (including in US National Institutes of Health and Wellcome Trust grant applications), establishing priorities of discovery as needed. Further, preprints are also archived, ensuring they are permanently available. 

They may also increase citations. Although not always easy to quantify, some studies show that posting a paper on a preprint server improves both its citations and altmetrics, which supports the worldwide dissemination of research. 

What are your wider hopes for the industry for the next 10 years?

My biggest hope for the future is that we continue to build out the knowledge lifecycle with a focus on the end-to-end process. The more information we have prior to publication – papers, conference proceedings and ideas in general – the more they can be the catalyst for other people’s research. For example,Eugene Fama, who won the Nobel prize for Economics in 2013 and was one of SSRN’s founding board members, posts his new papers on SSRN. By making Eugene’s ideas broadly available, his research can inspire hundreds, if not thousands, of other researchers and their ideas

It’s our ambition that people continue to understand the benefits of publishing preprints and early-stage research. It’s not always about the replacement of version-of-record but creating fodder for other people’s ideas. 

Lastly, do you have any fascinating hobbies or pastimes you want to tell us about?

I really enjoy working with my hands outside of work – something that delivers progress in real time! During the pandemic we bought a lake house and I became a handyman, a renovation guy of sorts. Working on it every weekend and building things, such as an outdoor shower and bunkhouse for my son and his friends, has been a nice alternative to the abstractions of scholarly communications. 


Interview by Annabel Ola