July 23, 2019 Practice Points

Best Practices for Citing Online Content and Avoiding Link Rot

Online content can change or vanish at any moment.

By Jake Rapp and Kathryn Honecker

Today, most of us rely more heavily upon online, rather than hard-copy, information sources. Understandably, we are also citing online sources (besides Westlaw or Lexis) more often in our briefs. Along with the influx of online citations, however, has come a myriad of varying citation formats, including the humble “available at” citation to a webpage’s address (URL). We can and must do better.

Fortunately, The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation (Columbia Law Review Ass’n et al. eds., 20th ed. 2015) can help. But don’t grab any old Bluebook—get the 20th edition, which provides online source citations in Rule 18.2.

Also, you must remember that online content—especially webpages—can change or vanish at any moment. Indeed, we’ve all experienced clicking on a link only to see “Error 404. File not found.” In fact, after a year, more than 20 percent of links have “link rot,” which means that the linked webpage is no longer available. After five years, link rot increases to 50 percent. To ensure that a link will take your readers to the cited source for years to come, we recommend adding archived links.

Read on to learn about archived links and the citation formats for common online sources you may encounter in practice.

Archived Links
To avoid link rot, consider providing a backup link obtained through a service that archives online content, such as Harvard Law School’s Perma.cc or the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. As shown below, per Bluebook Rule 18.2.1(d), you should reference your archived link (aka “permalink”), in brackets immediately after the current URL.

  • EXAMPLE: Mila Sohoni, Opinion analysis: Court refuses to resurrect nondelegation doctrine, SCOTUSblog (Jun. 20, 2019, 10:32 PM), https://www.scotusblog.com/2019/06/opinion-analysis-court-refuses-to-resurrect-nondelegation-doctrine/[https://web.archive.org/web/20190621170635/https://www.scotusblog.com/2019/06/opinion-analysis-court-refuses-to-resurrect nondelegation-doctrine/].

While adding an archived link may appear to clutter citations and footnotes, a citation’s purpose is to ensure that readers can locate the source. With roughly 50 percent of all citations linked in Supreme Court opinions now failing to reach the proper webpage, some “clutter” may be warranted to ensure accuracy. Adam Liptak, In Supreme Court Opinions, Web Links to Nowhere, N.Y. Times (Sept. 23, 2013), https://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/24/us/politics/in-supreme-court-opinions-clicks-that-lead-nowhere.html [https://perma.cc/BQD5-SC58].

Websites
Bluebook Rule 18.2 sets forth the following format for most online content:

  • FORMAT: Author’s First and Last Name, Title of Article/Blog/Source Using Italics and Initial Capitalization, Abbreviated Webpage Name Per T.13 (Date, Time if available), URL or short URL [optional archived link in brackets].
  • EXAMPLE: Louise Matsakis, What to Look for in Your Facebook Data—and How to Find It, Wired Bus. (Mar. 28, 2018, 5:07 PM), https://www.wired.com/story/download-facebook-data-how-to-read/.

If no author is identified, begin your citation with the title; and if the material is undated, provide a parenthetical after the URL that indicates when you last visited the page: “(last visited [date]).” The following citation is to internet content that is both undated and anonymous:

  • EXAMPLE: Investor Relations, Starbucks, https://investor.starbucks.com/ir-home/default.aspx (last visited June 4, 2019).

Print Sources Available Online
When a source exists in both hard copy and online formats, you may include the online version to make obscure sources more accessible for readers. To do so, Bluebook Rule 18.2.2(f) directs you to provide the original print citation followed by a link to the online format.

  • FORMAT: [Original Print Citation], URL or short URL [optional archived link in brackets].
  • EXAMPLE: A.O. Scott, Heaven, Texas and the Cosmic Whodunit, N.Y. Times, May 27, 2011, at C1, https://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/27/movies/the-tree-of-life-from-terrence-malick-review.html [https://archive.nytimes.com/screenshots/www.nytimes.com/2011/05/27/movies/the-tree-of-life-from-terrence-malick-review.jpg].

Many print sources are available online as PDFs or another format that preserves the original source’s pagination, which allows you to include pin cites to a specific page or section.

Social Media
Social media is even more dynamic than a standard webpage, sometimes changing by the second. Fortunately, most social-media posts are time-stamped, which makes it easier to direct your reader to a specific post. However, before copying a post’s URL, make sure you open the post in its own window or tab, so the URL directly (and only) refers to that post by number, as opposed to linking back to a profile page with a person’s entire posting history.

  • FORMAT: Name of Account or Poster (@social media account name), Social Media Platform Name in Small Cap (Date, Time), URL or short URL [optional archived link in brackets].
  • EXAMPLE: U.S. EPA (@EPA), Twitter (June 21, 2019, 11:53 AM), https://twitter.com/EPA/status/1142143483177832448 [https://web.archive.org/web/20190627162441/https:/twitter.com/EPA/status/1142143483177832448].

We hope our summary of Rule 18.2 and our tips will help next time you cite to an online source.

Jake Rapp is a 3L at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, a summer law clerk with Rose Law Group pc, in Scottsdale, Arizona, and a member of the ABA Section of Litigation’s Consumer Litigation Committee. Kathryn Honecker chairs the Class Action Department at Rose Law Group pc, in Scottsdale, Arizona, and cochairs the ABA Section of Litigation’s Consumer Litigation Committee.


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