Thursday, July 19, 2007
Michael Fischl, the labor law scholar at the University of Connecticut, writes with the following strange SSRN experience (I vote for cry!):
I'm not sure whether to laugh or cry at the experience I am having with SSRN, but I thought it would interest you and perhaps other legal academics as well. About a week ago, I posted an essay on SSRN about last year's union campaign among the custodial staff at the U of Miami. (It's part of a forthcoming "teaching from the left" symposium in NYU Review of Law & Social Change; it focuses on the role of faculty during the campaign and, in particular, on the controversy surrounding the decision of some faculty to hold classes off campus during the strike.) I was taken completely by surprise, though, when I went to check my posted abstract and saw Google ads along the right-hand margin. I hadn't heard that SSRN was doing that and am embarrassed to admit that I hadn't noticed the practice before; no doubt others have noticed and critiqued, but I've somehow missed all that.
But my surprise gave way to utter shock when I read the particular ads that appeared and saw that two of them were from firms selling anti-union services! Here is what appeared when I first checked:
Center for Union Facts
Facts That Union Leaders Don't Want You To Know. (followed by a link)
Educate Workers on Unions
Stay Union-Free Custom video, web, e-learning (followed by a link)
The line-up of ads seems to change, perhaps on a per-view basis; if you’d like, you can see for yourself what’s up there now by checking
I wrote the folks at SSRN and received a cordial & not unsympathetic note from Michael Jensen, who said it was the first time they’d run into this particular problem and that they’d look into it. (He noted that they already police against ads for e.g. term-paper outsourcing, but wondered whether excluding ads like mine however "disturbing" they might be – might not "violate the space we are creating.") Anyway, the last time I checked I was still providing an advertising vehicle for anti-union firms, and this is not exactly an ideal speech situation.
On the one hand, I am sympathetic to the efforts of the SSRN folks to find ways to fund their service that don’t require a per-download charge; obviously we all benefit from that. On the other hand, the vice revealed by my own experience seems to lie in permitting ads to be linked to the content of particular papers (as opposed, say, to ads directed toward academics general, or to a particular field of academics e.g., from publishers). I’d have no problem with a content-based link to other scholarship, of course, but commercial content-based links seem to force a choice between "grin and bear it" and censorship, bad choices both, with no corresponding scholarly benefit.
Perhaps others have already given this situation more thought & have good ideas for what to do about it; my sense, from Michael Jensen’s response to me, is that the SSRN folks might listen to thoughtful input.
Comments are open; post only one. Non-anonymous suggestions are more likely to appear.
ADDENDUM: I note that my own SSRN paper "Why Tolerate Religion?" has only one slightly odd Google Ad: for "Buddha Ringtones"! But why a paper on evolutionary biology and law attracts the Google Ads it does is really quite hard to figure.