November 1, 2013
Legal scholarship is built on the principle that the ideas put forth have a solid foundation in established academic sources. With every citation that fellow researchers cannot consult, an author’s ideas seem less and less tenable.
Now that much of the legal academic realm has transitioned from paper-and-ink journals and treatises to electronic resources, the issue of “link rot” has manifested itself as an issue.
Link rot refers to the phenomenon in which website URLs cited in academic papers disappear or morph over time. Thus, rather than referring readers to something permanent and physical, citations afflicted with link rot lead nowhere.
Link rot seems to be a problem that is getting worse.
- In a recent study, two researchers from Harvard Law School found that 50 percent of the links in all Supreme Court opinions are no longer functional.
- The same researchers found that 70 percent of the links in issues of the Harvard Law Review from 1999 to 2012 do not work. “As time passes,” the researchers observed, “The number of non-working links increases.”
- This impression is borne out by previous research. A 2002 study of federal appellate opinions found that 34 percent of Internet citations from 2001 cases were already inaccessible, and that 85 percent of Internet citations in cases from 1997 had become inaccessible
Clearly, link rot is a problem. Luckily, the legal realm has at least begun to coalesce around a solution.
For example, citations to Westlaw materials will never lead to nowhere. A link to a Westlaw document will take a reader to the most current version of the document. For authors interested in a point-in-time citation, Thomson Reuters’ Drafting Assistant offers an ‘Authority Compiler’ function that provides a record of the law as it stood when the document was first submitted.
These are positive steps, but link rot may still persist for researchers who use a search tool other than Westlaw. At least currently, Perma CC requires users to submit a link and wait for the permanent link to be generated; because Perma CC does not instantly generate links, like link-shortening website TinyURL, its great potential usefulness is somewhat hindered by manpower resources and timeliness concerns.
If the researchers studying this issue are correct in that link rot is growing ever more pervasive, then the legal world may be in a race against time. It is good to know, then, that we are making very real progress.