Vanishing Act: The Erosion of Online Footnotes and Implications for Scholarship in the Digital Age. Michael Bugeja and Daniela V. Dimitrova. Duluth, MN: Litwin Books, 2010. 86 pp.
This book addresses an emerging issue in scholarship with some solid research by the authors, not speculation. Bugeja is director and Dimitrova a faculty member in the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University.
The issue is what happens to citations of online sources in journal articles. The title suggests many disappear. The authors address the question in two ways. They checked all the online sources mentioned in ten communication journals between 2000 and 2003. They also interviewed the editors of these journals about the question of vanishing cited sources. They asked about how often editors thought online sources were cited, how important they thought they were, and how much of a problem they thought vanishing sources were.
The findings are astonishing. In the 160 issues of these ten journals, the authors found 2,305 citations of online sources, an average of fourteen per issue. Fifty-three percent of those sources were inaccessible.
The numbers varied from twenty-two for Journalism History—63.6% of all cited sources—to 653 (39.7% of cited sources) in The Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication.
The authors also computed the half-life of sources for each of the journals. Half-life is the point in time when half of the sources cited in a particular journal would be inaccessible. The range was from 3.04 years for The Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media to 5.97 years for The Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. The average for all ten journals was 3.93 years.
What this means is that if you look for a source cited four years ago in one of these journals, you can expect to find it only about half the time.
For context, the authors offer figures from studies of half-life of online sources in journals in other fields. Those studies report half-lives ranging from 1.4 years for law journals to 4.8 years for education and research training journals. Thus, communication journals fall somewhere in the middle.
The reaction of the ten communication journal editors was mixed. Some were unaware of the problem, some were aware and did not consider it a major problem, and some were taking steps to deal with it. Two of the journals were checking all the online citations to make sure they were accessible. That seems like something all journals should do.
One thing the authors do not do in this thin book is give us an idea of what proportion of the citations are of online sources. I would estimate that this journal had between 9,000 and 10,000 citations in the time period studied. Of these, 249 or slightly less than 3% were inaccessible, or slightly more than one per article.
One an article doesn’t sound like a crisis, but the authors also found that the number of online sources rose 78% between 2000 and 2003, and inaccessible sources increased 32%. So the problem is not going away, not being resolved, but it’s getting worse.
It is possible that improvements in technology will at least reduce the problem. The authors suggest, however, that it will help if researchers use print sources and, in the absence of those, that they use pdf sources to preserve accessibility of their citations.
Vanishing Act is an important book calling attention to a problem that ultimately concerns not only journal editors and authors of journal articles, but all of us who do research. It’s a quick read with a big payoff.
GUIDO H. STEMPEL III