Rule 1 of The Bluebook—the authoritative manual for legal citations followed by most American law journals—is as simple as can be: “Provide citations to authorities so that readers may identify and find those citations for future research.” Indeed, that basic rule has been followed by generations of academic authors and law journal editors, much to the chagrin of many of those involved. (Many authors, however, have the option of outsourcing citation duties to their lowly research assistants—2L journal members don’t enjoy that same luxury.) While the basic principle of legal citation has remained the same throughout the years, the nature of the legal sources involved has, in many instances, changed dramatically. Citations that once directed readers to books and treatises—all neatly organized in the library—now direct readers to blogs, online articles, and even (gasp!) Wikipedia.

Even though most people now get their information from the Internet, law libraries remain well-stocked.

Even though most people now get their information from the Internet, law libraries remain well-stocked.

Of course, this all makes sense—citations are there to show where authors got their information, and, just like everyone else, academic authors are getting more and more of their information from the Internet. Some critics of this phenomenon like to warn that this is a dangerous approach, noting the commonly held—but not necessarily accurate—belief that information coming from the Internet is less reliable in its accuracy. (Although it sure is easy to get some inaccurate information out there on the Internet. After all, the earth is flat—cite away, flat-earthers. We’ll see if that one gets past my editors.) Nonetheless, that criticism will surely become a faint voice in the years to come, as more and more people turn to the Internet to feed their information addiction.

But all this isn’t to say that law journals citing Internet sources—even those so accurate that they would make my Editor in Chief cry—is problem-free. Indeed, the problem, as I see it, comes in the form of the disappearing cite. Few articles that we publish make their way through the editing process without one of our diligent editors finding a link that has gone dead. Think about it—when the authors found the Internet source it was alive and kicking; a few months later, when the article is going through the editing process, the source is nowhere to be found. Who knows what percentage of Internet citations that appeared in law journals a few years ago are still just a click away.

In the name of empirical research so poor that it would give Tracey George a headache, I decided to head over to the webpage of one of the most prestigious tech journals—the Harvard Journal of Law & Technology—and see how their most recent articles were holding up. (Yes, yes, I should have checked out one of our own articles, but the pain would be too great.) The articles they published for their Fall 2008 issue are the most recent articles available online; I decided, quite randomly, to take a look at Aaron Burnstein’s offering, Amending the ECPA to Enable a Culture of Cybersecurity Research. After scanning the article’s wealth of citations, I quickly lost all interest in my initial plan to find out how many of the article’s Internet citations–which were surely checked, prior to publication, sometime within the last year–were still live. But I figured I could still give one or two cites a shot. This is the first part of the first citation of Burnstein’s article, meant to back up his relatively innocent proposition that “[c]omputer networks have joined other systems like transportation, energy, defense, and health care that are critical to the functioning of the national economy”:

I clicked on the link, only to be told that “[t]he page [I] requested wasn’t found at this location. The Obama Administration has created a brand new White House website, and it’s possible that the page you were looking for has been moved.” (I was also encouraged to “take a moment to explore [the] new site, learn more about President Obama and his team, and read about their plan to bring about the change America needs.” Oh, the joy.) Again, this was the first cite of the article. (And, yes, the only one I checked. Turn away, Tracey George, turn away.)

That long-winded story isn’t meant to single out the Harvard Journal of Law & Technology, of course—the inherent moral of my story is something that needs to be faced by every editor that works on a law journal (myself included), as well as every academic that publishes in them. After all, who knows what the Internet will look like twenty years from now. It would be a shame if all that hard work that we collectively put into making our citations shine would be for naught, leading researchers of the future to dead links and understandable frustration. I think there might be a solution to this quandry, however—I’ve written about it here. Let me know what you think.

– Nick Lynton

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2 Responses to Cite This Blog Post Today, For Tomorrow It May Be Gone

  1. Nick,

    Thanks for your post highlighting both an important problem for law journals (especially tech law journals) and the broken URL in our recent issue.

    Although it is unfortunate that the link you pointed out no longer works, I think this is somewhat of a unique situation due to the change in the presidency. Links usually don’t die this fast. The Obama web people really should have taken a different approach than they did – they should have archived the previous administration’s webpages and redirected users.

    That said, you point out a real problem with Internet citations. They change. They will likely all be broken in 10-20 years. The link in our article just became broken very quickly.

    What we really need is sort of an Internet Archive (archive.org) designed specifically for legal journals. Perhaps JELT and JOLT should start it – we could call it availableat.org and it would serve two purposes a.) preserve web-based content and b.) create short URLs (you could assign each journal an acronym and then a number for each source – like availableat.org/hjolt1). What I envision is that if you went to the link, you would have two options 1.) go to the original URL (which will be working in most cases) or 2.) see a cached copy.

    - Brad

    P.S. Everyone at JOLT thinks the JETLawBlog is awesome. We are consistently impressed.

  2. hb says:

    Excellent points and I like your tone. (And you managed to express them all without a footnote!). I’m torn on this one. Regrettably, what passes as legal research over the past decade has steadily (apologies law students, but take note)devolved. There’s something to be said if one has to cite to a source that is simply someone else’s opinion on a blog. I mean, there’s a reason a lot or most of that crap isn’t in traditional legal/academic repositories–because IT’S CRAP! On the other hand, there’s obviously SOME quality content out there authored by people with decent enough credentials, who simply chose to publish/express their views in other formats.

    But criticisms of legal research, citation and writing aside, the point remains of how to address the transitory and ethereal nature of these sites (and cites). I confess I haven’t give much prior thought to the problem. Perhaps the Library of Congress should have a greater role in this matter. It’s something that impacts many people in the legal/social part of academia. It shouldn’t be that hard to get the academic/library folks together at a table with the web server geeks (tell them there’s free pizza and beer) to hash out possible solutions. How about a pergatory for not-quite-dead web sites?