Magazine article Information Today

When Good Links Go Bad

Magazine article Information Today

When Good Links Go Bad

Article excerpt

Link Rot: The process by which links on a Web page become obsolete as the sites they're connected to change location or die.

--Gareth Branwyn, Jargon Watch, Wired, July 1, 1996

The amusing and edifying resource Word Spy identifies the above quotation as the earliest citation of the term "link rot" ( So this is an issue that has plagued the World Wide Web since its earliest days.

Now, almost 2 decades in, link rot has ballooned into a major problem, far beyond the simple annoyance of being confronted with a 404-error page ( .asp). It is written about regularly in scholarly journals--even well outside the purview of library and information science. You'll find a lot of link rot-focused articles in legal journals, sometimes with amusing titles ("Something Rotten in the State of Legal Citation: The Life Span of a United States Supreme Court Citation Containing an Internet Link (1996-2010)" from the Yale Journal of Law & Technology, digitalcommons

Drifting Links

The actual problem is not at all amusing. According to "Perma: Scoping and Addressing the Problem of Link and Reference Rot in Legal Citations," a recent Harvard Law School study (non-paywall working paper version at pers.cfm?abstract_id=2329161), "[MJore than 70% of the URLs within the Harvard Law Review and other journals, and 50% of the URLs found within United States Supreme Court opinions, do not link to the originally cited information." Imagine the frustration for the legal researcher and the ramifications for everyone involved.

Link rot also plagues the corpus of scientific literature, which is worrisome because the advancement of science is so dependent upon earlier research. In "A Cross Disciplinary Study of Link Decay and the Effectiveness of Mitigation Techniques," which appeared in the journal BMC Bioinformatics in 2013 (biomedcen, the authors wrote:

We accessed 14,489 unique web pages found in the abstracts within Thomson Reuters' Web of Science citation index that were published between 1996 and 2010 and found that the median lifespan of these web pages was 9.3 years with 62% of them being archived.

Articles in other scholarly journals also addressed the problem:

* "Towards Robust Hyperlinks for Web-Based Scholarly Communication" (Intelligent Computer Mathematics; DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-08434-3_2)

* "Uniform Resource Locator Decay in Dermatology Journals: Author Attitudes and Preservation Practices" (Archives of Dermatology, ncbi

* "Accessibility of Internet References in Annals of Emergency Medicine: Is It Time to Require Archiving?" (Annals of Emergency Medicine; ncbi.nlm

* "'Link Rot' Limits the Usefulness of Web-Based Educational Materials in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology" (Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education-, DOI: 10.1002/bmb .2003.494031010165)

The scholarly community has attempted to address the transient nature of URLs via the digital object identifier (DOI) system ( and Persistent Uniform Resource Locators (PURL; .html). But keep in mind that these are useful only if the item in question has changed location but is still actually online somewhere.

What causes link rot? You know this. Content gets renamed/relocated/removed. …

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