References, Citations and Links

This is another post in my intermittent series about my experiences of studying for a PhD at University of Suffolk and University of East Anglia, this time about my puzzlement with references, citations and links.

Like around 40% of the world population, I seem to spend much of my time on the internet. It’s how I communicate with colleagues and friends, it’s where I access all the software and systems that I work on in my “day job”, and it’s where I read, write and learn. Although not strictly a “digital native“, born into a world where such things already exist, I at least count myself as a naturalised citizen. However, this is causing me some cognitive dissonance as I progress through my PhD research, as almost every process and assumption in academia was formed long before such things were possible.

Ever since the first web proposal, the primary characteristic of this “world wide web” has been the link (originally known as “hyperlink”, but that term has largely dropped out of fashion). Web users know what links are, know how to “click” them, and expect something different to appear when they do so. Even (dare I say it) academics know how to use the web. In this blog post, when I wish to offer the opportunity for a reader to dig more deeply into a concept, I include a link. When I am reading a blog post or web article during my general research, I expect the same thing. Naturally enough, the same thoughts cross my mind when I try to write for academic purposes. If I wish to cite a paper or some other research reference, my first thought is a link but, immediately, I hit problems.

Links in academic writing are simply not the done thing. It’s tradition. There are reasons for this, of course, and some of them are still valid.

Links are fragile. If there is a criticism of Berners-Lee’s original design for the world wide web it is that, for practical reasons, a URL is primarily an address – an indicator of location rather than content. If the folder structure of a server is reorganised or the intended resource moves to a new server, any links to the old location become invalid. Some servers try to provide a redirection facility to extend the life of old links, but “link rot” is always a threat. Perhaps by the time you read this, some or all of the links in this article will no longer lead to the correct destination.

Links are proprietary. All information on the web is hosted on a server somewhere. Someone has to pay for that server t o keep running. At any time, anyone with appropriate access to the server can change that server, moving, deleting, or restricting access to the resources it holds. Licence terms on the content can be changed or ignored, even the content itself can be changed between visits, with no indication to a visitor that it has happened. If a writer cannot rely on the cited work being the same for a reader, there is little point in citing it.

The primary way of linking to an external resource in academic writing is the reference. It might seem logical to assume that a reference would serve as a unique way to identify a particular resource, but this is not quite the case. For reasons of historical tradition there are many forms of reference, some popular, some less so, but none universal. To add even more complexity, many institutions or publications claim to use one of the popular reference formats, but have local tweaks which lead to then being not quite compatible with usage by other organizations which also claim to use the same format.

Even within a particular tradition of referencing, there are still problems. In a world of over six billion people, names are generally not unique, so even if the full name of an author were to be used, there would still be the potential for confusion. For example, it’s hard to search for my writing without bumping into the works of another Frank Carver. This is not show business, and there is nothing to prevent two people with the same name from publishing their research. Many traditions make this worse by not even using full names. Using just a surname and one or more initials makes potential author clashes much more likely. Referencing publications is also complex. For much of the history of scholarship, it was seen as sufficient to refer to journals and other publications by initials or by an abbreviated name. As the number and variety of such publications has grown, these abbreviations have overlapped and changed, and it can sometimes be difficult to work out which publication is being referenced.

There are some initiatives which aim to bring order to this increasingly complicated area, though. Modern journals and magazines routinely register for identifying ISBN or ISSN numbers. Academic publications have also progressed with adoption of the DOI (digital object identifier) as a way to identify the content rather than the address of online resources. Associating and displaying a DOI with electronic versions of journal articles and conference proceedings is becoming common. Another similar initiative is the ORCID (Open Researcher and Contributor ID) which allows anyone to register for a unique personal ID with which to associate their research contributions. So far I have not observed much public use of this system, but it shows promise.

For a fresh paper in a niche area of research, none of this is much of a problem, so there is usually little incentive to change how things are done. However, when accumulating and picking over literature for a relatively broad-based literature search, traditional references make very little sense. For my PhD I have so far collected several hundred documents, and navigating the collection using references is becoming a burden. Every time I wish to associate a note or reflection with a particular paper, I have to generate some form of citation and make sure that it is unique enough and understandable enough to follow later. Every time have to pick some part of the reference and paste it into a search box to find a paper again I wish I could just click a link, as I would do on the web in general. There are plenty of examples of reference management software available. Most of them can store documents for quick access, but so far none that I have tried will let me link directly from my notes to a particular paper, let alone to a particular page, paragraph, line or phrase. When compared with repository systems for software development such as GitHub, where anyone can link directly to a few lines of even a huge software project, this is probably the feature I miss most.

If anyone knows of a reference manager which will let me link through to stored articles, and reduce my literature review stresses, please do let me know!