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For Great Credit Card Deals . . . Read my Academic Paper

posted by Angie Littwin

Yesterday I wrote that I posted a paper on SSRN. Today I went to check on this paper and noticed a curious phenomenon:  my SSRN page is hawking credit cards.  If you look down the side of the web page that displays my abstract, there are five Google text ads, all related to credit.  One offers a low-rate credit card.  A couple offer debt relief or credit counseling.  One even offers debt-settlement services, an unsavory offshoot of credit counseling wherein the company advises its clients to stop paying their creditors and instead save up for a future settlement payment.

Ssrn_1In order to see whether this was a coincidence, I looked up the abstracts of some of my colleagues in the Climenko Fellow program.  One who writes about criminal sentencing had ads for defense attorneys, criminal-law degree programs, and – I kid you not – gunshot ring tones for the cell phone.  Another had written a paper about insurance law, and his abstract featured an ad for life insurance.  Other fellows who write on topics less amenable to consumer advertising had more generic advertisements, such as products offering to protect one’s legal data.  As one of my colleagues, who writes about international human rights tribunals, put it, “Apparently, the advertising market in the area of war crimes, genocide, etc. is rather limited.”  The ads change each time you refresh the abstract page, so sometimes I got the generic legal data advertisement next to my abstract and others I got a new array of credit-related products.

These are Google ads, so I doubt that SSRN is linking the ads up with the subject matter.  It’s probably being done by a generic algorithm that Google uses to target its ads to content. Still, there are a few thought-provoking implications of this practice.  Here at Credit Slips, in the informal context of a blog, we made a conscious decision not to have ads. (Although, as Bob Lawless pointed out in November, if you Google Credit Slips, you do get ads for credit that way.)  But in the relatively formal context of academic exchange on SSRN – where the stakes of academic integrity are presumably higher – most of us are allowing them by default.  There are major differences, the most obvious one being that the pervasiveness of the ads on SSRN make them less attributable to any one author.  On the other hand, many universities pay for their professors to access parts of SSRN – Harvard will pay for me to receive regular updates of new articles in my field – and I wonder if they are aware that they are paying for their faculties to access commercial content.

Also, I would strongly prefer not to have ads for credit cards running next to my paper arguing for major changes in the credit-card market. And that subject-matter mismatch will often be the case.  Legal academics tend to write about areas of law they think need change – it’s harder to write 50-70 pages on a system that seems just fine – so content-targeted ads will frequently be for products or services the author is proposing to regulate or modify in some other way. On the other hand, that might reduce the effectiveness of the ads  – which is probably not very high in this context anyway.  I can’t imagine that readers who look up my paper are particularly inclined to obtain credit cards, or that those who read my colleague’s paper on insurance law are any more likely than anyone else to be in need of life insurance.  As for the likelihood of criminal-law specialists wanting gunshot ring-tones for their cell phones, I offer no opinion. 


I've been worrying about other isues to do with SSRN's policies (See my SSRN Considered Harmful, your choice of SSRN and BEPress for download site.) I didn't even get into the advertising, which I agree is unfortunate.

A quick update on SSRN. After my post, the service emailed me to say that it shared my concerns about credit card ads and had taken them off of my abstract page. I definitely appreciate the gesture.

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