Standards of Citation and the Internet

Bland Whitley

Why do we cite sources? I imagine that for most of us, annotating work has become second nature to such a degree that we rarely think about why exactly we’re doing it. I’ll stress two main reasons, though I’m sure others could think of different rationales. The first is a kind of reflexive establishment of scholarly bona fides. As undergrad and grad students, we were taught to base our arguments on the sources and authorities we consulted—you may vaguely recall those dreary high school assignments that required some minimum number of sources. All of this remains of course an essential building block in the development of historical understanding. It is through immersion in a variety of sources that we learn to build arguments out of a variety of competing claims and to establish a sense of the relative reliability of different texts and evidence. The second reason grows out of scholars’ relationship with one another. Whether collaborating or arguing, scholars require access to the evidence that informs particular arguments. Although these rationales are not mutually exclusive (they often reinforce one another), the second should command greater respect. Leading other scholars to one’s evidence, so that they can reach similar or very different conclusions, is what citation should deliver. Too often, though, we can all find ourselves practicing a strategy of citation for citation’s sake.

I’ve been thinking about these issues because of an interesting debate that has played out on a couple of listservs during the previous two weeks (H-SHEAR, geared toward historians of the early republic, and SEDIT-L, which serves scholarly editors). Daniel Feller, senior editor of the Papers of Andrew Jackson, kicked things off with an impassioned critique of lazy citations of material culled from the web. Singling out a few different recent works that have quoted passages from important addresses made by Jackson during his presidency, Feller found that the works were citing either internet sites of dubious scholarly quality, one of which was no longer live, or obscure older works that neither improved on contemporary versions of the text nor took advantage of the contextualizing annotations of modern versions. Why should this be the case, Feller asked. It’s not hard to find print versions of the original sources for Jackson’s addresses. Indeed, it’s never been easier, as all can be found either on Google Books, or through the Library of Congress’s American Memory site. Instead of taking a couple of extra minutes to track down better and more useful source material, the authors had stopped searching after finding the desired text on whatever website seemed halfway professional and then cited the link, no matter that such links frequently have the shelf lives of a clementine.

The response to Feller’s post has ranged from attaboys from traditionalists who view the internet as little more than a dumping ground/series of tubes for scholarly quacks, to condemnation of yet another attempt by an academic to marginalize “amateurs.” (Why is it that all listserv conversations seem to devolve into a spat between angry researchers impatient with professional norms and defenders of some mythical historical establishment?) One commentator referred to articles that have analyzed the high percentage of historical citations of websites that have become defunct, a phenomenon known as link rot. Another pointed out that citing a website that may soon go dead isn’t really all that different from citing an unpublished conference paper or oral history—in neither case is the source material truly available to anyone else. Feller, of course, wasn’t really criticizing publishing or citing material on the web. He was warning that the proliferation of source material on the web has degraded historians’ citation standards.

There are two issues at work here. First, how do we handle link rot? This is a conundrum with no easy solution. Increasingly, all people interested in history, scholars and aficionados alike, will be getting much of their information from the web. What is our responsibility for ensuring that others can check our source material? If we have a reasonable expectation that a given website might not be around for very long, should we even bother citing it? If source material becomes problematic simply because of the ephemeral nature of the venue on which it is found, however reputable, how do we convey its legitimacy as evidence? The second issue relates to the question of what constitutes an authoritative text. The web has dramatically expanded researchers’ capacity to obtain and analyze primary and secondary sources—public records, newspapers, transcripts or digitized scans of correspondence, and obscure county histories, formerly accessible to only the most dogged and sophisticated researchers, are now readily available to anyone. But the web has done all this at random. The Eye of Google™ gazes upon some works but not others. Outdated and overly restrictive copyright laws prevent the sharing of many works. Researchers looking for specific texts to buttress their arguments encounter (through the workings of the search engine) sources that they otherwise would never have considered consulting. Before, researchers would have learned what specific sources one needed to look up when seeking the text of, say, the electrifying second annual message of Millard Fillmore. Now, enter a few key words, and voilĂ : Maybe you’re more interested in Fillmore’s controversial 3d annual message and prefer it from a printed work? Boom:

Is the above http address a legitimate source for citation? It’s a well-done, university-backed website, and I can only assume (having neither the time nor inclination to verify) that the text is presented accurately. I certainly wouldn’t hesitate to direct students to it. So why not? Well, what if UC-Santa Barbara loses or otherwise decides to pull the site’s funding and it goes dead? Can we depend on other researchers to retrieve it from some archived site (the Internet Archive’s Way Back Machine)? What about the printed source? What of a recent reprint of James D. Richardson (something of the court historian for the nineteenth-century presidency)? Perhaps you’re interested in U.S. relations with Cuba and needed to discuss the Fillmore administration’s rejection of British and French entreaties to forswear annexation of the island. That’s covered in the edition (p. 212), so you could cite it as a source. But beware, Google only offers a summary view of the book. Although you might be accurate in locating Fillmore’s rejection of the British-French tripartite arrangement, you’d be obscuring the incompleteness of the edition you consulted. Rather than helping other researchers, the citation would simply reflect the ease with which specific texts can be found on the web. In cases where the source is not unique (unlike, say, a manuscript letter, diary, or newspaper), citation, when it’s necessary at all, should go beyond merely indicating where one viewed the text. It should point readers to the scholarly apparatus that makes the particular source useful and authoritative.

There’s that word again—authoritative. Now we enter the realm of scholarly editors, who take a special interest in presenting historical and literary texts that are built for the long haul. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that part of Feller’s justified pique grew out of a realization that not only were the Jacksonian scholars he reviewed citing somewhat dubious sources, they were not consulting The Papers of Andrew Jackson. I experience the same frustration in my work with the Papers of Thomas Jefferson. An all-too standard pet peeve is coming across recent scholarship that cites, not our series, but Paul Leicester Ford’s earlier edition The Works of Thomas Jefferson. Now, there’s nothing wrong with Ford. If one is looking to quote TJ, many of his famous writings are covered in that edition. But Ford’s project was very different from the comprehensive, annotated approach undertaken by modern documentary editions. Not only do modern editions present text more accurately, they present it in context. The primary subjects’ words appear along with the incoming correspondence that might have prompted them. Annotations connect text to other primary sources, as well as to modern scholarship. There is, in short, a wealth of information, both critical and ancillary, that is useful to readers.

So why do so many people continue to rely on Ford? Because his edition has been scanned into Google Books and therefore is convenient for anyone unwilling or unable to search beyond a desktop. Now, I can understand that a lot of researchers out there may not have the institutional support of a major research library and therefore can find it a challenge to get to modern documentary editions. The volumes are expensive, and the work of getting them online (although ongoing) may not occur quickly enough to satisfy everyone—nor does it necessarily lower the price. Still, it seems to me that the facility of the web has encouraged a kind of entitled sensibility among many researchers, who become miffed when something is not available online for free. The kind of scholarship that fills documentary editions costs money, though. Editions may or may not have the ability to publish online with no expectation of remuneration—university presses do, after all, require some return. The internet, however, has untethered the connection between the free consumption of information and its labor-intensive production. Too many researchers, accustomed to getting so much of their information for free from the comfort of the coffee shop, seem increasingly unwilling to do the legwork necessary to gain access to superior sources. Instead they settle for the merely adequate. That’s a shame.

I don’t want to imply that there’s anything wrong with citing material from the web. It’s essential and will increasingly account for much of the information that ends up in our works, particularly as online publication becomes more prominent. We do need to be sensitive to the issue of link rot—the Chicago Manual has some useful hints in this regard, and I am hopeful that archivists and librarians, who are far more advanced in these matters, will come up with some viable solutions. More broadly, the bounty of the internet need not fundamentally alter what we choose to cite as evidence. Standards will and should evolve with the times, but we should not displace one set of works with another simply because the new batch is easily and freely obtainable. Any shift should be based on the responsibility we have to our readers to connect them with the best available sources, print or web-based.