Demographics, Career Concerns or Social Comparison: Who Games SSRN Download Counts?
Executive Summary — Why do certain individuals commit fraudulent acts—in this case repeatedly downloading their own working papers from the Social Science Research Network (SSRN) repository to increase the papers' reported download counts? HBS professors Benjamin G. Edelman and Ian I. Larkin study the relative importance of demographic, economic, and psychological factors leading individuals to commit this kind of gaming. Authors engage in deceptive self-downloading to improve a paper's visibility on SSRN, to obtain more favorable assessments of paper quality, and to obtain possible benefits for promotion and tenure decisions at those schools that consider download counts in tenure decisions. Data indicates that authors are more likely to inflate their papers' download counts when a higher count greatly improves the visibility of a paper on the SSRN network. Authors are also more likely to inflate their papers' download counts when their peers recently had successful papers—suggesting an "envy" effect in download gaming. Download inflations are also affected somewhat by career concerns (e.g. just before changing jobs) and by demographic factors, though these effects are smaller. On the whole, analysis suggests a heightened risk of fraudulent acts not only where economic returns are high, but also where prestige, status, or reputation are important. Key concepts include:
- Envy and social comparisons play a strong role in predicting deceptive downloads.
- Discontinuities and other incentive anomalies invite gaming. At SSRN, gaming increases when it will increase a paper's visibility on SSRN by putting the paper (or keeping it) on a "Top 10 list."
- Some groups seem to be less likely to engage in download gaming. Females and researchers at low-ranked institutions seem to be somewhat less likely to engage in gaming.
We use a unique database of every SSRN paper download over the course of seven years, along with detailed resume data on a random sample of SSRN authors, to examine the role of demographic factors, career concerns, and social comparisons on the commission of a particular type of gaming: the self-downloading of an author's own SSRN working paper solely to inflate the paper's reported download count. We find significant evidence that authors are more likely to inflate their papers' download counts when a higher count greatly improves the visibility of a paper on the SSRN network. We also find limited evidence of gaming due to demographic factors and career concerns, and strong evidence of gaming driven by social comparisons with various peer groups. These results indicate the importance of including psychological factors in the study of deceptive behavior.