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 handle.net, 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.