Much of what we do as librarians revolves around preserving knowledge and making it accessible. Thus, the growing issue of “link rot” and “reference rot” in legal information is a troublesome problem. Link rot is the phenomenon of broken links – when the URL provided via a hyperlink no longer functions. Reference rot is a bit more deceptive; in this situation the hyperlink still works, but the webpage or information provided is no longer that which was originally linked to. In their recent article Perma: Scoping and Addressing the Problem of Link and Reference Rot in Legal Citations, Jonathan Zittrain, Kendra Albert, and Lawrence Lessig provide some perspective on just how big the problem is. They found that half of the links provided in Supreme Court opinions and over 70% of links cited to in the Harvard Law Review “do not produce the information originally cited.” As Zittrain puts it in an April 2014 interview with NPR, this is “extraordinarily bad for the long-term maintenance of the information we need…to understand the law.” As legal writers need to support their conclusions with fixed content, it is vital that they take steps to preserve content as it exists in particular moment in time and make it readily available.
Here are some concrete ways for legal writers to help combat link and reference rot:
- Include only essential links in your work.
- Think twice before using URL shorteners, as they are especially susceptible to link rot.
- Link to a source landing page rather than a PDF when you have the choice – landing pages are more stable in comparison to PDF documents, which are often moved around and renamed on a website.
- Use Perma.cc, a caching solution developed by the Harvard Library Innovation Lab. Upon direction from an author or editor, Perma will retrieve and save the contents of a webpage and return a permanent link. The permalink ensures that even if the original is no longer available because the site goes down or changes, the cache is preserved and available.
- Check your links regularly.
- Provide an avenue for readers to report link or reference rot.
To learn more about link and reference rot, I recommend accessing the recordings of the October 24, 2014 Georgetown Law Library Symposium “404/File Not Found: Link Rot, Legal Citation and Projects to Preserve Precedent” and perusing the following articles:
- Stephanie Davidson, Way beyond Legal Research: Understanding the Research Habits of Legal Scholars, 102 Law Libr. J. 561 (2010).
- Benjamin J. Keele & Michelle Pearse, How Librarians Can Help Improve Law Journal Publishing, 104 Law Libr. J. 383 (2012).
- Raizel Liebler & June Liebert, Something Rotten in the State of Legal Citation: The Life Span of a United States Supreme Court Citation Containing an Internet Link (1996-2010), 15 Yale J.L. & Tech. 273 (2012).
- Mary Rumsey, Runaway Train: Problems of Permanence, Accessibility, and Stability in the Use of Web Sources in Law Review Citations, 94 Law Libr. J. 27 (2002).
- Nicholas Szydlowski, A Dead Link or a Final Resting Place: Link Rot in Legal Citations, 18 AALL Spectrum (April 2014), at 7.
- Jonathan Zittrain, Kendra Albert, & Lawrence Lessig, Perma: Scoping and Addressing the Problem of Link and Reference Rot in Legal Citations, 127 Harv. L. Rev. F. 176 (2014).