Thursday, July 19, 2007

Google Ads on SSRN--and Some Odd (shall we say) Juxtapositions

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.

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Tracked on Jul 20, 2007 7:32:34 AM


These ads provide an argument against using SSRN to host one's scholarship. Papers posted to BEPress's Selected Works, to a school website, or to one's personal site don't carry ads -- and thus don't carry a risk of having one's scholarship used as an implicit endorsement for whatever advertiser the algorithm spits out. Scholars concerned about this issue should lobby SSRN to stop selling advertisements, and should post their papers elsewhere in the meantime.

Posted by: James Grimmelmann | Jul 19, 2007 1:31:26 PM

Ironically, the best marketing for institutional repositories I've seen yet. Many schools offer such services (see, e.g., IDEALS at UIUC,, which provide open, persistent, reliable access to scholarship.

Posted by: stephanie | Jul 19, 2007 5:03:30 PM

As I write, the ads adorning "Why Tolerate Religion?" have to do with financial risk management and job seeking. I don't get the connection. This points out the mistaken level of sophistication we ascribe to these kinds of technologies (the ad placement services, I mean). They, and analogous tools for conducting research and finding information, remain at a very early stage of development, despite all the hoopla.

The choice between "grin and bear it" and censorship, it seems to me, should be a very easy one. Furthermore, the distinction between scholarly and commercial links isn't always clear. How would Prof. Fischl feel were his paper accompanied by an ad for, say, this Liberty Fund publication ( It's scholarly, it's commercial, and it likely advocates positions about unions antithetical to his. I sympathize with his discomfort at serving as "an advertising vehicle" for positions he actively opposes, and, for that matter, I'm already disturbed by the advertising component, regardless of its content. But until Google and its ilk really refine their ability to "personalize" (in manifold dimensions) the content they push, we'll have to resort to asserting political pressure on SSRN and its ilk, as Prof. Fischl has done.

Posted by: Dean C. Rowan | Jul 19, 2007 5:25:39 PM

I'm not sure why SSRN would profess that this is the first time that they had run into the particular problem with scholars expressing concern about the content-driven matching of advertisements to the topics of their articles. (Perhaps it was the first time that Michael Jensen had become aware of it). Angie Littwin posted on the Credit Slips blog about her experience with credit card articles appearing on the abstract page for her article, Beyond Usury, and apparently contacted SSRN about this situation back in March.

Her posting is available at:

Posted by: Katie Porter | Jul 19, 2007 9:02:05 PM

As Dean Grimmelman writes, the technology for this stuff ain't all that sophisticated. It was recently reported that, just below a New York Times story about the highly questionable marketing practices of a computer company called Blue Hippo, appeared ads for . . . Blue Hippo.

See here (from another Angie Littwin post):

Posted by: Bob Lawless | Jul 20, 2007 9:11:09 AM

Apparently, despite what they say, they don't actually police adds for term paper outsourcing: I just checked two of my papers, and both contained ads for a site called "Written Term Papers" which promises that you can "download 1000 term papers in the next 3 minutes."

Posted by: Suzanna Sherry | Jul 20, 2007 9:12:15 AM

This is not uncommon for a fair number of journal home pages. Though I wasn't aware SSRN did this. Perhaps they could switch to different (and sadly probably less profitable) ad providers such as Amazon or Textlink ads where they would have more control (and more hassle) over the content of the ads.

Ironically Brian I have just written about this topic on the Philosophy and Bioethics blog, both in relation to the possibility that the Leiter Reports may host ads but also in regards to the ads on the American Journal of Bioethics website, which have included ads for essays being written for you, cordblood storage (Recommended against in both the UK & the US) and outfits offering organ transplants (with finance!) available in 7 days... All rather odd to find on the homepage of a major ethics journal.

Details are here:

Posted by: David Hunter | Jul 20, 2007 9:16:37 AM

An ad on the page of a paper I've posted on SSRN is headlined "Sex for Seniors."
I'm not sure I know (or want to know) the editorial judgment that went into selecting advertisers. Is it an implicit statement about the content of the paper or its author?

Posted by: Paul LeBel | Jul 20, 2007 10:01:29 AM

I've found that anti-labor Google ads are extremely common on labor-supporting websites. Clearly, union-busting firms have bought up lots of the union keywords. This doesn't bother me, though, because I know that Google advertisers pay by the click, and that hosting sites get paid (at least partially) by the click. Whenever I see an anti-labor Google ad, I make a point to click on it, just to cost the union-busters some money.

Posted by: jacob | Jul 30, 2007 5:24:29 PM

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