A web page that lasts forever: the plan to stop “link rot” in law and science

Imagine a research library where most of the books are missing footnotes — where the bottom of the pages are stained or ripped out, making it impossible for scholars to tell the sources of information. That’s the state of many web pages right now, including those for the Supreme Court and The New England Journal of Medicine and Science.

New York Times’ legal reporter Adam Liptak called attention to the problem in September, citing research that showed half of the links on the Supreme Court site don’t work. This pervasive “link rot,” he noted, means the sources and authorities that form the basis of the Court’s decisions are simply missing.

Link rot is a growing issue for both courts and academic journals, but one that is downplayed on the grounds that books and paper are the “real” authorities while internet sources are ephemeral or, at best, unofficial. As the era of print recedes, however, this anti-digital bias looks more and more untenable.

The good news is that libraries have a plan to fix the problem. This weekend, the Times Higher Education website published a feature that looks at Perma CC, a site that is creating etched-in-stone digital references for scholars and lawyers.

It works like this: a scholar (or anyone else) can submit a link to Perma CC, which is managed by a coalition that includes universities, libraries and the Internet Archive. According to Perma CC, the group will create a permanent URL and store the page on its servers and on mirror sites around the world.

Readers who encounter Perma.cc links can click on them like ordinary URLs. This takes them to the Perma.cc site where they are presented with a page that has links both to the original web source (along with some information, including the date of the Perma.cc link’s creation) and to the archived version stored by Perma.cc.

There is also a process for scholars and librarians to “vest” certain URLs so that they become an official, permanent citation for law and science journals.

This process appears to be a long overdue solution. Here are some more stats cited by the Times Higher Education feature:

  • Link rot at influential science journals rises from 4 percent at three months to 10 percent at 15 months to 13 percent after 27 months.
  • 98.3 percent of web pages change in some way within six months, while 99.1 percent do within a year
  • At three Harvard legal journals, over a 12-year period, 70 percent of the links no longer worked

Image by Aleksey Stemmer via Shutterstock