Thursday, 5 February 2015

URLs in footnotes - Don't!

Students often ask about putting a url in a footnote. For many years I have discouraged this practice. My view is that a url is not really a proper reference at all. Rather, it is an indication of a place where you may find a document. It is the electronic equivalent of putting, in the footnote, that the document can be found in the second floor of Barnes & Noble in the politics section or on the 43rd shelf of a particular library.
In any event, I have question the real use of such references. If I want to find a document, I am unlikely to keyboard in a long url. Rather, I am going to google it using a key word or two.
I find some support for my attitude in a recent article in the New Yorker ‘The Cobweb. Can the Internet be archived?’ by Jill Lepore (26 January issue, p. 34. It includes the following:

In providing evidence, legal scholars, lawyers, and judges often cite Web pages in their footnotes; they expect that evidence to remain where they found it as their proof, the way that evidence on paper – in court records and books and law journals – remains where they found it, in libraries and courthouses. But a 2013 survey of law- and policy-related publications found that, at the end of six years, nearly fifty per cent of the URLs cited in those publications no longer worked. According to a 2014 study conducted at Harvard Law School, ‘more than 70% of the URLs within the Harvard Law Review and other journals, and 50% of the URLs within United States Supreme Court opinions, do not link to the original cited information’…
The footnote, a landmark in the history of civilization, took centuries to invent and to spread. It has taken mere years to destroy. A footnote used to say, ‘Here is how I know this and where I found it’. A footnote that’s a link says, ‘Here is what I used to know and where I once found it, but chances are it’s not there anymore’. It doesn’t matter whether footnotes are your stock-in-trade. Everybody’s in a pinch. Citing a Web page as the source for something you know – using a URL as evidence – ubiquitous. Many people find themselves doing it three or four times before breakfast and five times more before lunch. What happens when you evidence vanishes by dinnertime?

Old-fashioned footnotes are the best, with proper citations to case law, treaties and secondary literature.

1 comment:

Ben Schiff said...

Welcome back, Bill!