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“Rotting Links” – Permanence in Legal Scholarship in the Digital Age

Just a quick note on an essay I read today by Jonathan Zittrain, Kendra Albert and Lawrence Less in the Harvard Law Review which I found pretty interesting and may be of interest to legal information professionals.

The article, entitled “Perma: Scoping and Addressing the Problem of Link and Reference Rot in Legal Citations” explores the risks and problems associated with linking to third party providers of information for the citation of sources in legal scholarship. I suppose that this isn’t a problem confined to legal scholarship alone.

To give you a feel for the direction of the article, see the quote below:

In principle, as cited sources move to the Web, this linking should become easier. Rather than requiring a reader to travel to a library to follow the sources cited by an author, the reader should be able to retrieve the cited material immediately with a single click.

But again, only in principle. The link, a URL, points to a resource hosted by a third party. That resource will only survive so as long as the third party preserves it. And as websites evolve, not all third parties will have a sufficient interest in preserving the links that provide backwards compatibility to those who relied upon those links. The author of the cited source may decide the argument in the source was mistaken and take it down. The website owner may decide to abandon one mode of organizing material for another. Or the organization providing the source material may change its views and “update” the original source to reflect its evolving views. In each case, the citing paper is vulnerable to footnotes that no longer support its claims. This vulnerability threatens the integrity of the resulting scholarship.

Well worth a read, particularly if you, like me, still haven’t shaken your trust in the printed word.

The reference to the article is 127 Harv L Rev F. 176 (just in case the link rots one day!)

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