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All Citations Should Include Hyperlinks (If Possible)

As a general principle, citations in scholarly works have two purposes: to prove that the point is supported by evidence, and to allow the reader to find the evidence that the author is citing to. The pain of citations comes from the requirement that these citations be made as brief as possible by painstakingly utilizing a series of standardized abbreviations. The requirement to abbreviate arises mainly from a historical limitation: the scarcity of paper and ink.

I hear from other scholars that readers increasingly choose to read scholarly works in electronic formats and it seems likely that this trend will increase over time. While many readers may still prefer to read in print, they often discover articles as pdfs and may even choose to annotate them in that format. If articles begin as pdfs and are rarely or never printed, abbreviations are less necessary because the limits of electronic storage space are not as important as our environmental imperative not to waste paper and ink.

If we need not worry about the size of the article, we return to the purposes of citation: evidentiary support and source findability. Would you believe that in Ohio it’s unlawful for any fowl to be permitted to enter a bakery?[1] Do you believe me, or do you suspect I have invented that fact just to see if you’d consult the source in print? Do you have access to the official Ohio Revised Code in print in your library? Would you be able to quickly place a request for the correct volume? Of course, it’s likely unimportant to you whether I am joking or not, so I doubt you have checked my source. Would you believe that in Ohio, bakery showcases must be “maintained in a sweet, clean, and wholesome condition”?[2] The bakery cases in question sound as though they’re striving to be “cheerful,” “thrifty,” “brave,” “clean,” and “reverent” like a Boy Scout[3], and yet, this is the real text of the Ohio law. You can click on the link in my citation and find the code itself in about three seconds. You can find the source of my assertion and assess the evidence behind my statement without budging from your comfortable computer chair.

Now, this does bring up a second issue: will that link work in six months? There’s been scholarship on link rot[4], and I think it’s a serious problem, but I don’t think we should combat it by using fewer links. I think we should focus on the methods we have for making links that will last.

What of the reader who wishes to find sources in print? I would suggest that an appended hyperlink should supplement, not supplant, a print citation. Because I know my suggestion won’t be adopted wholesale, let me argue in the alternative that hyperlinks should be added whenever an author has discretion to do so under the current citation rules. For example, the Bluebook suggests in Rule 18.2.1(b)(ii) that “[…] if a parallel citation to an internet source will substantially improve access to the source cited, citation should be made both to the traditional source and to the internet source by appending the URL. directly to the end of the citation.” I believe that since many readers will read work electronically and many readers will not choose to access a source cited if it requires finding that source in print, adding a parallel citation to an internet source will “substantially improve access to the source cited.” If we want scholarship to be read and believed, let’s make things easier on the readers and give them a fast way to find the sources and check the evidence.

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[1] Ohio Rev. Code § 911.14

[2] Ohio Rev. Code § 911.09 https://codes.ohio.gov/ohio-revised-code/section-911.09

[3] What are the Scout Oath and Scout Law?, Boy Scouts of America https://www.scouting.org/about/faq/question10/

[4] Zittrain, Jonathan and Albert, Kendra and Lessig, Lawrence, Perma: Scoping and Addressing the Problem of Link and Reference Rot in Legal Citations (October 1, 2013). Harvard Public Law Working Paper No. 13-42, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2329161 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2329161

Comments

  1. I agree 100% and THANK YOU for writing this! Just this morning I was struggling (and ultimately failing) to amend the McGill Guide citation style in Zotero to consistently include URLs in all my footnotes.

    Amelia, what do you think about “supra” citations? Are these maybe also vestiges of “the scarcity of paper and ink” from yesteryear? Personally I hate having to go back multiple pages to find the citation. Should full citations now be used every time a source is cited?

  2. Yes, I think we should get rid of Supra citations unless the supra could have an underlying hyperlink that actually takes you back to that part of the document. I know this isn’t possible in all documents, so I think we’d be better off with full citations every time. I guess I’m even advocating for the end of short cites.

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