Although the Internet has revolutionized legal research in so many (good) ways, the problem of link rot – hypertexted links that link to web pages that have been removed or had their URLs changed – is a serious and frustrating issue. In researching potential “bottlenecks” to accessing law-related information on the Internet as part of my LL.M. thesis, I came across some of the following materials on link rot.
One recent study has shown that of 123 academic conference articles published on the Internet between 1995 and 2003, 46% of citations to web-based sources in those articles could no longer be located, which accounted for 22% of all citations in the papers [Carmine Sellitto, â€œThe Impact of Impermanent Web-Located Citations: A Study of 123 Scholarly Conference Publicationsâ€? (2005) 56 J. of the Amer. Society for Inf. Sci. & Tech. 695].
Likewise, a study by Bar-Ilan and Peritz suggests that close to 40% of web-based citations in articles from 1998, 1999 and 2002 on the topic of â€œinformetricsâ€? disappeared over time [Judit Bar-Ilan and Bluma C. Peritz, â€œEvolution, Continuity, and Disappearance of Documents on a Specific Topic on the Web: A Longitudinal Study of â€˜Informetricsâ€™â€? (2004) 55 J. of the Amer. Society for Inf. Sci. & Tech. 980 at 986, 988].
Similar results were achieved when 3,941 URLs in nine print-based guides on the Internet (e.g., The Guide to Internet Job Searching) were examined two to three years after the books were published in print. In that study, only 61% of filename-based URLs were still active [Joel D. Kitchens and Pixey Anne Mosley, â€œError 404: or, What is the Shelf-life of Printed Internet Guides?â€? (2000) 24 Libr. Collections, Acquisitions, and Tech. Serv. 467 at 471].
When web pages have a half life of only two years on average, the problem of linkrot means that a lot of information on public websites may well not be there several years in the future [Wallace Koehler, â€œKeeping the Web Garden Weeded: Managing the Elusive URLâ€? (2000) 8 Searcher 43].
One ironic example of linkrot in the Canadian legal context is the disappearance of two major government-sponsored reports on the promising role that the Internet will play in Canadian economic and cultural survival. Neither of the well known â€œIHACâ€? reports â€“ Connection, Community, Content: The Challenge of the Information Highway and Preparing Canada for a Digital World â€“ are online anymore; their URLs are dead [The first report is listed in major search engines as being available at http://strategis.ic.gc.ca/SSG/ih01070e.html  (but is not); the second report is listed in major search engines as being available at http://strategis.ic.gc.ca/SSG/ih01650e.html  (but is not)] and even a recent government online report from October 2002 still provides a (broken) link to the document – see Chapter 1(d) of the online version of Industry Canadaâ€™s â€œSection 92â€? report under the Copyright Act entitled â€œSupporting Culture and Innovation: Report on the Provisions and Operation of the Copyright Actâ€? (October 2002) at notes 13 and 14. Available online at: http://strategis.ic.gc.ca/SSI/rp/section92eng.pdf .
Another recent example relates to disappearing Ontario government press releases and backgrounder papers, rightly identified by the then President of the Toronto Association of Law Libraries in December 2003 as alarming due to its negative impact on legal research and the publicâ€™s right to access government information.