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.

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