Citations. Bibliographies. Footnotes. References. Academic publications are filled with them. They serve a number of purposes:
- Lend support to a statement and give authority to a line of argument.
- When disagreeing with an author, it is a good practice to cite the source so that others can corroborate that you are not misquoting.
- Acknowledge the origin of an idea and give credit to the person whose ideas are quoted directly or indirectly.
- Help the reader to discover more sources and further information.
- 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 There is growing evidence that academic papers are littered with outdated and broken hyperlinks.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.