The Problem With Link Rot

More people are recognizing the issues with link rot that law librarians have known for at least 10 years. The ABA Journal reported on the link rot phenomena and how it is degrading legal research.

As noted, "[t]he World Wide Web is filled with dead ends: hyperlinks that point to webpages that have become permanently unavailable. It’s a phenomenon known as 'link rot.' With the continued growth of the Internet, the amount of such rot has been accelerating, studies have shown, imperiling citation references in academic research and case law. For practicing lawyers, link rot is making it harder to find examples of legal precedent." One judge has gone so far as to say that it is undermining stare decisis.

And this is a continuing problem because "[a]ccording to the Chesapeake Digital Preservation Group, a collaborative archiving program, the average life span of a webpage is between 44 and 75 days. The CDPG [also] notes that important legal materials are increasingly being 'digitally born' and distributed online rather than published on paper, resulting in a 'troubling trend' of transient legal information."

It's becoming much more commonplace for lawyers and judges to cite directly to Internet sites. "When links were first introduced into opinions, they were superfluous—icing on the cake. Over time, that’s really changed. More and more what’s being cited, as an example or as a source of something, may live only online and not as a part of a formal knowledge system.”

So how do we fix the problem? "If lawyers are citing Web information, attach an appendix with the version of the website they’re referring to. If a judge is writing an opinion and citing to a source online, they should capture that at the time and not just assume the link and what it points to will be the same two years later when someone goes to look at it.”

Not only should lawyers and judges attach appendices, "[t]he growing prevalence of Web references prompted the Judicial Conference of the United States to provide guidelines for judges on citing and maintaining Internet sources and hyperlinks in opinions. Suggestions include downloading cited Internet resources, and including them with opinions and in the court’s electronic case file system. The Supreme Court retains a print copy of Internet citations in the clerk of court’s case file, but that offers limited accessibility."

Printing web pages and attaching them to case information is one step (that shows that print is still very stable). Going further, the Harvard Library Innovation Lab members "are trying to combat link and reference rot by building a permanent home for legal citations to online sources. They have created a coalition of more than 30 law libraries to preserve Web links through a database called"

As this issue becomes common knowledge, there will no doubt be steps to reverse the trend.

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