Links in Articles

Via Zoe Corbyn’s excellent twitter feed, I saw this disturbing article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about link rot in journals.

Authors and journal editors link to Web-based resources in citations meant to last, but the phenomenon of “link rot“—when links, or URL’s, stop working—can undermine the usefulness of those references. … Mr. Bugeja and Ms. Dimitrova studied online footnotes used over a four-year period, from 2000-3, in nine journals in their field, communication studies. Although the rate of “footnote flight” varied from journal to journal, the researchers write that they came up with “a collective half-life rate of 3.95 years, as only 1,083 (47 percent) of the 2,305 citations worked when checked in late 2006.”

In a sense, this is a big problem in philosophy. A lot of bibliographies these days feature links to articles on various personal websites. These links will, I’d bet, die very quickly. There are also links to blogs, and even blog comment threads, which also don’t feel particularly permanent. I haven’t seen anyone citing a Facebook discussion thread yet, but given how much discussion goes on there, I suspect it’s only a matter of time.

Now perhaps this isn’t a deep problem, since most of the papers will end up being published eventually, and citing the blogs/comment threads is no worse than citing ‘personal communication’, which is just what one would have cited had the conversation been via email rather than in a thread. But not all papers get published. And authors certainly don’t feel compelled to leave every version of a draft article on their website. More inconveniently, sometimes authors will change the title of a paper between online posting and publication, which could make tracking down a reference to the earlier, online-posted paper, very hard.

I’m not sure what the right solution to this problem is, or even how deep a problem it is. As the Chronicle article says, some of the problem can be averted with a good use of document object identifiers, or DOIs. Most of the commercially published journals in our field use DOIs for their online papers already, and it’s a good idea to incorporate those into one’s citations. (Many BibTeX styles already make allowance for DOIs, so this is easy to do if you use BibTeX.) But this won’t help with blogs, which don’t get DOIs normally.

And it requires that all electronic publications get DOIs for each article they post. That typically isn’t true in philosophy for things not hosted by a commercial publisher. As far as I can tell, the Stanford Encyclopaedia, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews and the Journal of Philosophy all don’t use DOIs. Nor does the PhilSci archive, though perhaps that would be inappropriate given that work is not necessarily in final publication stage. Philosophers’ Imprint uses a different permanent URL, from, that I’m not familiar with but looks reasonably stable.

None of those sources have been subject to link-rot yet, as far as I know, but it would be good to have some redundancy here, to ensure that online work can persist as well as work on dead trees has persisted.

Howard University Philosophy Department Under Threat

Feminist Philosophers reports that the administration at Howard University is considering closing its philosophy department.

Howard University, as many of you will be aware, is a historically black university, and one which has played an important role in the history of the Civil Rights Movement in America. It is Thurgood Marshall’s alma mater. And its philosophy department was the academic home to Alain Locke for the vast majority of his career. It would be a horrible development for such an important university to have no philosophy department, and for such an important philosophy department to close.

The post at Feminist Philosophers has a number of links for people you can write to in protest of this suggested move, and I’ll try to keep this post updated with more information as it comes to hand.


Here are two things I’ve been working on recently.

This is a follow up to my 2005 paper Can We Do Without Pragmatic Encroachment. I argue that thinking about decision theory gives us a new way to appreciate the argument for the interest-relativity of knowledge. I also argue, or perhaps I should say concede, that cases where agents have false beliefs about the decision they are facing provide a reason for thinking there is a kind of ‘basic’ interest-relativity to knowledge. That is, in these cases there is an aspect of interest-relativity to knowledge that cannot be explained by the interest-relativity of belief.

These are the notes for my grad seminar on scepticism that’s currently ongoing. I’ll update this link a few times during the semester. The notes are very drafty, but maybe they’ll be of some interest as a way of thinking about scepticism.

I’ve been thinking of trying to do a 100-level course on scepticism. Obviously that would involve very different levels of detail and explanation to a graduate course, but I’m starting to think that some of the material I’ve covered in this seminar could work at 100-level. I doubt it would be as popular as Shelly Kagan lecturing on Death, but it could I think be useful.

Fun With Gini Coefficients

Income Change under Conservatives and Labour Matt Yglesias and Brad DeLong have argued that this graph, from Lane Kenworthy, shows that we shouldn’t be too critical of Labour’s performance with respect to inequality over their 12 years of government in Britain.

Both Matt and Brad are pushing back against Chris Bertram’s post at Crooked Timber, which argued that Labour had done very little about equality. (Although in his remark on my comment on his post, Brad now seems to suggest that his post was a pre-emptive strike against what Chris would go on to write in comments.) There’s a natural rejoinder on behalf of Chris, which has been well made in both Matt and Brad’s comments threads. Namely, if the graph really showed that things had gotten better, equality-wise, the Gini coefficient for the UK would have fallen. But in fact it rose, somewhat significantly, over Labour’s term. Indeed, the IFS Report that the graph is based on shows quite clearly that it rose markedly towards the end of Labour’s term.

So I got to thinking about how good a measure Gini coefficients are of equality. I think the upshot of what I’ll say below is that Chris’s point is right – if things were really going well, you’d expect Gini coefficients to fall. But it’s messy, particularly because Gini’s are much more sensitive to changes at the top than the bottom.

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