The Power of Links for Citation

Citation standards vary wildly depending on the type of work, where that work is being presented and the expectation of the work’s audience. These standards impact both when citation is needed and how it is given. 

For example, a scientific researcher writing a journal article follows a different protocol than a lawyer filing a lawsuit. They are both very different from a fiction author, who is also different from a non-fiction author. Furthermore, all of those are different from a film producer or a person giving an informal speech.

We see this online as well. Facebook, for example, has a different citation standard than Twitter. In fact, the citation standards even came about in different ways, with Facebook enforcing one from the top down where Twitter simply codified organic user behavior.

However, for much of the internet, attribution and citation takes a very simple form: The humble hyperlink (or simply link). 

In many ways, links are the perfect way to handle citation on the internet. They are simple to use, provide easy access to the source material, and encourage readers to follow the trail that the author took. It’s an experience no other citation format can give. 

However, they are also an imperfect tool. They provide limited information and are prone to erosion over time. As such, it’s one of the few citation standards that decays.

Still, links are an incredibly powerful way to provide citation and attribution. To see why, we have to look at the history and the current use of links.

A Brief History of the Hyperlink

Depending on how you define it, hyperlinks, or more appropriately, hypertext, is an idea that’s been around for as long as there’s been information to sort. People have always sought an easy way to get from one piece of information to the next.

However, in 1945, engineer Vannevar Bush penned an essay entitled As We May Think. In the essay, he explained the concept of a machine known as a Memex, which would link various microfilms to one another and allow the creation of “trails” and a “collective memory.”

That essay would inspire inventors such as Ted Nelson and Douglas Engelbart, who created offline technologies with hyperlinks in the 1960s. These pre-internet applications then had an influence Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web while working at CERN and made hypertext a core component of it as far back as 1990.

In 1991, the Gopher protocol became the first publicly available standard to use hyperlinks and, when the Mosaic browser was released in 1993, HTML, which also featured the use of hypertext, became the de facto standard for creating web pages.

Since then, despite all the changes that the web has gone through, the hyperlink has remained essential for building websites, navigating the web and, ultimately, providing attribution.

The Good and the Bad of the Hyperlink

As a citation standard, links bring plenty of positives to the table. 

They are easy to implement and add, since they are core to the internet, both humans and machines understand them easily, and they take readers directly to the source in question.

In short, anyone can easily provide a link and rest assured that their readers will be able to understand that it is a link, how to use it and that their device will be able to parse it.

Links are also used by Google and other search engines to determine the authority of a particular page. The more links that point to a particular article, the higher it is likely to rank. This means that links are a citation standard that actively helps the person being cited receive more authority, much like how citation in journal articles helps other researchers increase their impact

However, with those benefits come some significant drawbacks. The most obvious is how little information a link provides.

With a link, all the reader gets is a URL. Clicking through to that URL should give them the other information they need, including name, date, etc. but that information is rarely in the work that provided the link. If it is, it’s usually included in an informal text citation such as, “As John Doe at The New York Times said…” 

That lack of information wouldn’t be very problematic if it weren’t for the fact that links often erode. Though most articles have all working links when they are published, as time passes, sites close, others rearrange their structure and some simply remove or change pages.

Though users can try running the URL through an archiving service, such as the Wayback Machine, those systems are not perfect and it is not uncommon for pages to simply become unavailable.

To be clear, this is an issue for all citation standards. However, the lack of other information makes the problem much worse for the hyperlink.

But those drawbacks have not slowed down the use of the hyperlink. It’s remained the de facto standard for attribution on the internet, with many upset if they are cited without one.

That is unlikely to change any time in the near future.

Bottom Line

The idea of hypertext and hyperlinks is likely ancient. It’s a concept that predates the internet, became a core part of the nascent internet, and has remained one today.

Though links have serious drawbacks, those issues are more than balanced by their simplicity and direct access. A researcher in the early 20th century would have likely loved a way to immediately access the book or document a work is citing without having to go searching. 

The hyperlink gives us exactly that: A direct connection between document and source.

However, using them is still something of a challenge. There are norms about when, where and how one should use links when writing online. 

In a future article, we’re going to examine those standards and offer suggestions both to improve the usefulness of links and also minimize their drawbacks.

In the meantime, it’s worth taking a moment to admire the simple hyperlink. It’s a basic idea that has revolutionized how we gather information and how we cite the information we use. 

It’s an imperfect tool that is perfect for the internet. 

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