It’s time to get rid of the hyperlink in academic references


Citations. Bibliographies. Footnotes. References. Academic publications are filled with them. They serve a number of purposes:

  1. Lend support to a statement and give authority to a line of argument.
  2. When disagreeing with an author, it is a good practice to cite the source so that others can corroborate that you are not misquoting.
  3. Acknowledge the origin of an idea and give credit to the person whose ideas are quoted directly or indirectly.
  4. Help the reader to discover more sources and further information.
  5. Assist the reader in finding the source material.

Of all of these functions, it could be argued that only the last two necessitate the addition of a hyperlink. As more information can be found online, it is becoming commonplace to conduct research over the Internet, and it is also common to include a link to the page where the source was found.

But do we really need hyperlinks in academic citations?

Before you tell me “but of course we do!”, hear me out. There is growing evidence that academic papers are littered with outdated and broken hyperlinks. A paper about link rot by Lessig, Albert and Zittrain found that 70% of all links contained in the Harvard Law Review were broken, and an astounding 50% of all links in US Supreme Court decisions were also directed to non-existing pages. This is a problem that increases with time, a study of articles in the Web of Science citation index found that the median lifespan of web pages was 9.3 years.

So why do we still provide links? Moreover, why do we still use the annoying practice of citing also when we last accessed a link? My understanding is that if you knew a date, you could go to an archive such as the Wayback Machine to find the page, but it may be easier just to google the title.

I checked a recently published article and found a few broken links, which was rather surprising given how recent it was. I was able to find the updated links by searching for the article title in both occasions. In fact, I cannot remember the last time that I typed a hyperlink from an article. My current practice is simply to search for the title, and I tend to find the correct document most of the time.

It’s unfortunate that some are even suggesting the opposite, that we should get rid of citations and cite hyperlinks. Madness I say, let’s do the opposite, forget the hyperlink and cite things as if they were just found in the library. After all, you do not have to cite the shelf reference from a library, why should you cite the link?

And before anyone points out that the article is filled with links, blogs are different, the link on a blog serves similar purpose to citation in an academic paper.

Comments 7

  1. I’m in the middle of writing a thesis, and you are absolutely right, the amount of broken links is absurd. Luckily for me, the MLA never required hyperlinks, but they definitely suggested citing the URL until some years ago (I’m old, I lose track of time, so I can’t be more precise).

  2. How about encouraging, at least for online articles that rather than linking to the article itself, (as you have for the Link Rot one) link to a Google scholar search for it (,5 ) – which shows there are 6 versions online – hopefully at least one will work (and, in the future, those 6 may be different, but live)

    1. DOIs are fine, the great thing about them is that you don’t even need a link either. I like the Google Scholar solution as well, but what if Google decides to abandon Scholar some day? We’d get a new generation of broken links.

      To an extent, I’ve been practising what I preach by never using links to legislation, cases, Directives, etc.

  3. institutional repositories are meant to offer permanent archiving, a DOI and green open access to academic articles (unlike to google scholar, academia, research gate and other closed commercial projects), OAI-PMH allows metadata harvesting and different versions…

  4. Just because people don’t adhere to W3C recommendations means we should forgo the world wide web, or rely on solely on search engines to index documents for us. I remember TimBL saying he created the WWW because sharing literature so damn hard.

    You should always strive for permanence when you put something on the web:

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