Reconsider the Source: Implications of Vanishing Online Citations in Communication Journals

Article excerpt

This invited essay focuses on the use of Internet footnotes in academic journals, an increasingly popular practice that may undermine scholarship-and the teaching thereof-in every discipline. Recent studies have documented that online footnotes disappear from the original source, undermining communication research reliability and replicability. The half-life of Internet footnotes also has pedagogical ramifications. The authors recount findings from their several investigations and propose methods to stabilize online footnotes in scholarly works.

At the 2006 annual International Communication Association conference in Dresden, Germany, we brought a copy of one of the prestigious journals whose content is analyzed in this article. We showed the journal to the audience and then ripped out several pages, asking those in attendance how they felt in the pit of their stomachs. There were gasps. Stomachs ached for a reason: Removing pages from journals deprives other scholars of access to content whose theories or findings can be challenged, replicated, or expanded upon; used to support literature reviews, bibliographies, or indices; or cited in methodologies, analyses, or other apparatus of qualitative and quantitative research-all of which rely on the footnote.

This is one reason why it is a crime to write on or cut and paste in journals in the library. Internet promotes copying, cutting, pasting, and manipulating data. That remains the fundamental difference between exact copies of a printed journal or book, which we call the "ultimate fire-walled medium," and the Internet. Those who invented the latter for military purposes were not interested in maintaining scientific method. Those who commercialized it were not interested in maintaining peer review. To be sure, online access has initiated remarkable, unanticipated political and intercultural achievements-we are not questioning that. However, consider this: Scholars documenting those digital milestones in academic journals using online citations might have their work discounted when source material vanishes on the Web.

The phenomenon involves the Internet's dynamic aspects granting easy initial access to data and later more difficult or impossible access to the same data. Citations containing hyperlinks often fail to connect to URL-based primary and secondary sources in scholarly or research documents. We call this the "half life" of Internet citations, which we have tracked for several years, publishing our findings in library science and new media journals.1 The phenomenon affects all levels of higher education, including our own, inasmuch as proper citation is a component of journalism and mass communication pedagogy, ranging from typical term papers in undergraduate classes to research papers in introductory master's level classes to doctoral dissertations. It especially affects media history, the very foundation of which rests on citation and whose scholars, in time, will have to deal with three rather than two types of sources: primary, secondary, and ephemeral.2 However, citation no longer is only a matter of scholarly repute or proper format but also of stability. Our research shows an increasing number of Internet-based citations being used in communication journals, especially as university libraries rely less on print and more on online databases.

Now factor in the decay rate of Internet citations-or the time it takes for half of footnotes to relocate on or be removed from the Web-which, we have shown in previous analyses, averages about three years in communication journals.3 This number is dynamic, of course, and subject to change in the future. If this trend continues, however, given time, this would mean that only a small fraction of footnotes would be available to the future scholar who will have to rely on the original author's citation being accurate or will cite the citation without reading the source document, a worrisome practice that undermines rigor and camouflages academic dishonesty. …