Supreme Court Link Rot Highlights Shortcomings of Online Citations

September 24, 2013

The U. S. Supreme Court has a "link rot" problem, and how -- according to one study, 49 percent of the hyperlinks cited in Supreme Court decisions point nowhere. These include not only links to other sites, but even links to former postings on the Court's own Web site. This casts fresh light on an issue I've written about before -- if you're writing something whose references just might be of interest to future scholars, Internet citations are far too emphemeral to rely on.

Since 1996, Supreme Court justices have cited online sources 555 times in their decisions. Adam Liptak of the New York Times notes that decisions from the high court term that ended this June contained scores of online citations. In one, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. documented that six-foot leashes are very popular among dog owners by linking to a page at About.com. About.com? In a U. S. Supreme Court decision? As Stan Lee might say, sheesh!

As Stan Lee might also say, with great power comes great responsibility. Supreme Court decisions will be plumbed for their sources and the nuances of their reasoning for decades, even for centuries to come. Including online citations that might disappear without notice even weeks after a decision is published seems unwise.

The larger issue here is that the Internet has yet to come fully of age as a reference tool. Yes, Wikipedia is usually accurate. Yes, being able to follow hyperlinks is hugely convenient -- while they work. But if your work is such that someone might want to browse your sources many years from now, relying heavily on online sources is a cruel joke.

In a June 2012 post (https://www.centerforinquiry.net/blogs/entry/in_this_game_of_info_survivor_print_wins/ -- a link that's still working) I lamented that Margaret Atwood's well-regarded 2003 novel Oryx and Crake omits an appendix of the author's research sources. Instead a note at the back of the book directs readers to a Web site, where the material was posted instead. Unfortunately that site was the publisher's promotional site for the book, since taken down. Future Atwood scholars (and there probably will be such) will have to hope that Ms. Atwood's files contain a tattered hardcopy of the source documentation that site contained. Today's Supreme Court kerfuffle just drives the point home. If you're writing for the ages -- or even for the mid-term future -- online citations can't be relied on.

It's not secret. When I edited The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007) there was a firm editorial policy against online citations. To this day, it is Free Inquiry's policy to cite a hardcopy source whenever both hardcopy and online sources are available. Years from now, it will still be possible to access that hardcopy source (or a well-attested virtual image of it). At the of this file there's a link to Adam Liptak's New York Times story, but its online incarnation is subject to editing and correction; when you check it days or months later, it may have changed unpredictably from the version I read. On the other hand, the morning edition of the Times from Tuesday, September 24, 2013 is a known, fixed quantity. Years from now you'll be able to find it in libraries or find it online and know you're finding it, the very version that the author referred to.

So as a public service, here's the real cite to Liptak's story: Adam Liptak, "In Supreme Court Opinions, web Links to Nowhere." New York Times, Tuesday, September 24, 2013, page A13. You can look it up.

Fifty years from now, barring nuclear apocalypse or a giant asteroid strike, you'll still be able to look it up.