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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.
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”:
- 1. See PRESIDENT’S CRITICAL INFRASTRUCTURE PROT. BD., NATIONAL STRATEGY TO SECURE CYBERSPACE vii (2003) [hereinafter PCIPB], available at http://www.whitehouse.gov/pcipb/cyberspace_strategy.pdf[.]
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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