An American Editor

February 14, 2011

Citing Sources in the Age of the Internet and eBooks

It has been an ongoing frustration of mine, dealing with bibliographic information that cites the Internet and ebooks.

In the olden days, way back when I was a student, the rule was that citing a source meant it really existed and was verifiable; one couldn’t cite and have accepted “James, J. (2010, August 10). Private conversation.” But today, I guess, anything goes — at least if you are in the role of author but not in the role of paper grader; that is, I find these types of cites in academic papers knowing full well that if a student of the author submitted such a cite, it would be unacceptable.

More important, however, is that cites to web pages that no longer exist — if they ever really existed — seem to be de rigueur, and no one complains. It used to be that it was not enough to cite a source, but the source had to be reputable and accepted in the field. It was pretty hard to cite Portnoy’s Complaint as an authority on sexual mores, yet I suspect that would not be true today.

Recently, I edited a book that relied on the Internet for 85% of its authority. A spot check of the cited URLs showed that 50% of those checked either no longer existed or led to an article that had nothing to do with the topic at hand. Interestingly, in another book, the URLs led to third-party summaries of the cited articles, not to the articles themselves.

This does not bode well for the quality of authorship of future work. The problem is compounded when ebooks are thrown into the mix. I’m currently reading a 1200-page ebook. If I cited the ebook for some proposition, how would a reader verify it without reading the whole ebook? eBooks, unlike pbooks, are not paginated. eBooks in the ePub format come with page numbers, but do they correspond to the pbook pagination? Or are they even the same across devices?

What the Internet and ebooks have done is encourage scholarly sloppiness. Increasingly, the response to a query about a source cite is, “Well, it was at that URL on the date I noted. What has happened since, I don’t know and it doesn’t really matter.” And publishers and academicians are buying into this view of source cites — publishers because it is too difficult to get authors to provide solid cites and academicians because it is easier than the more traditional citing procedure.

No one is addressing, however, what this does to the value of the “research.” I find that when I am reading a book I bought and the author has used an URL citation or referred to an ebook, I begin to doubt the accuracy of the book. If I find that a cited URL no longer exists, the value of the book as a scholarly work diminishes rapidly.

I’m not sure what the solution to the problem is. Supposedly there are Internet archives whose purpose is to take snapshots of the Internet daily so as to preserve information, but I’ve not been able to access such an archive.

I recognize that as the face of information changes, so must the acceptable methods of citation. Yet there needs to be a method of ensuring that a cited source exists today, tomorrow, next year, and next decade or scholarly value will decline along with the availability of the source material. In addition, there needs to be a way to vet online sources such as Wikipedia for accuracy.

It is not enough that an online citation format appears in the standard style manuals; somehow the online sources need to be preserved, vetted, and accepted, especially as reliance on such sources grows. In addition, there needs to be a system adopted for universally being able to find cited information in an ebook, not just a broad citation to the ebook, and whatever that method is, it needs to be implemented by ebook device makers and publishers. Whatever method is designed, there needs to be a correspondence between the pbook and ebook versions of the same book; in addition, the method has to be device independent.

There is still a long way to go to make the Internet and ebooks scholarly sources, but the day is coming when it must be accomplished.

11 Comments »

  1. I, too, am running into this citation morass with increasing frequency, and scratching my head about what to do about it. Thankfully, the bulk of the academic texts I see still rely on printed, valid sources; more often, I see URL-itis in amateur work or nonacademic nonfiction slated for the open marketplace.

    Comment by Carolyn — February 14, 2011 @ 7:33 am | Reply

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    Pingback by Tweets that mention Citing Sources in the Age of the Internet and eBooks « An American Editor -- Topsy.com — February 14, 2011 @ 10:38 am | Reply

  3. Amen, brother. I’ve been crusading against ebook citations for a while now. It’s difficult to find a quotation and impossible to pin down a paraphrase in an unpaginated work. And the online version can change without notice, making it even harder to verify. If a writer expects to be taken seriously, he should cite the print edition if one exists. I don’t have a good answer for dealing with exclusively electronic versions.
    A related issue: One recent author cribbed large sections of his book from Wikipedia and thought citing the website was all he needed for scholarly credibility! I patiently pointed out that the URL might remain the same, but the content could change hourly on Wikipedia, and the sources cited there (if any) may or may not exist–and may or may not be reliable. The question of plagiarism is separate from authority–he has problems with both.

    Comment by The Book Doctor — February 14, 2011 @ 12:01 pm | Reply

  4. Here’s one internet index I have used to locate archived versions of web pages: http://waybackmachine.org/

    I agree that citations to websites is problemmatic. I never thought about the lack of pagination in an e-book! Short of copying the text you’re relying on, I’m at a loss as to how you could correctly cite to an e-book.

    Comment by Meredith Morgan — February 14, 2011 @ 2:51 pm | Reply

  5. [...] more here: Citing Sources in the Age of the Internet and eBooks « An American … Comments [...]

    Pingback by Citing Sources in the Age of the Internet and eBooks « An American … « Ebooks Extra — February 14, 2011 @ 3:40 pm | Reply

  6. The Wayback Machine is pretty much the standard way to refer to pages that used to be on the Internet but are no longer. It doesn’t have an archive of everything, but does a pretty good job.

    This is a major reason why linkrot is such a bad thing. Text doesn’t take up that much storage space. Keep your pages up, and if you HAVE to change URLs, redirect the old ones to the new ones. It’s not that hard, website owners!

    Comment by Ben Lukoff — February 14, 2011 @ 6:10 pm | Reply

  7. I second the recommendation of the Wayback Machine. I’ve used it to check an author’s references to a website that had reorganised its structure and removed web pages since the author had conducted his research. And while an access date may not always be useful, at least it shows a level of diligence on the part of the author (or, more likely, his or her editor who insisted on one!).

    I also agree with the suggestion that references are getting sloppy. I’ve had a couple of authors happily provide the full details for a book or journal article in a citation, but then seem to think that simply inserting the URL is all that’s needed when referring an internet source. It’s required an awful lot of work to get all the references up to scratch.

    Comment by Catherine — February 14, 2011 @ 7:44 pm | Reply

  8. Wickipedia is not necessarily accurate. But I think we have to remember that things published in books aren’t always accurate either. One person can publish something that is incorrect, and people coming after that will continue to cite that source, or other sources that cite the original source, and it will be accepted as true when it isn’t.

    One idea behind Wickipedia (and other online sites) was that it could easily be updated as knowledge expanded. It takes longer with books.

    That said, I agree that some authors are incredibly sloppy with references. One journal I work with requires not just a URL but the date that the author saw the page. If the page is gone, that doesn’t help, but at least you have a tiny idea about whether it’s probably changed by now.

    Comment by gretchen — February 15, 2011 @ 5:54 pm | Reply

  9. [...] Some thoughts from An American Editor on citing sources from the internet and ebooks. [...]

    Pingback by Stumbling Over Chaos :: Linkity means that I can happily overindulge in exclamation points!! — February 18, 2011 @ 3:03 am | Reply

  10. I recently wrote to the New York Times to complain about their practice of completely changing some titles in the online version. Are they seeking brevity or humor? I have no idea why the exact same article will appear in print and in the aggregated ProQuest database with one title, and in the online Web version with another title. I have had the experience of typing the exact title from the paper copy in my hands into the search box and being told that the title does not exist. What exactly does that do to citation accuracy or how is a fact checker aided by this silliness.

    Comment by Johanna — February 24, 2011 @ 2:41 pm | Reply

  11. Good point about the line between authoritative source and conversation being blurred these days.

    The internet shifts the focus away from static documents and to a conversation. Authority is what comes from the search, so what we need is just better means of accessing sources. If a source is down, then at least you should be able to find the same thing said elsewhere. This new tool built by us (shameless plug) http://www.thefullwiki.org does that for Wikipedia, while trying to find the most authoritative sources it can.

    Comment by Luke Metcalfe — March 6, 2011 @ 9:26 pm | Reply


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