Future Tense

Stop Citing Your Papers. Start Hyperlinking.

frustrated college student and computer.

Photo by Hemera Technologies/Thinkstock/Getty Images

It’s 10 p.m. and the assignment is due at midnight. Fear begins to nibble at you. At this point, your bibliographical information is nothing more than a dizzying assortment of tabs stuffed across the top of your Web browser and some books surrounded by bags of junk food and empty soda cans. The next two hours will be spent furiously, exhaustedly, and fruitlessly formatting source citations, plugging URLs into sites like EasyBib and Citation Machine, desperately hoping that the professor won’t notice that the dates are wrong and the names aren’t spelled right.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Students’ hatred of the citation process is not because of any concerted effort to plagiarize, but rather a result of frustration with a slew of outdated conventions for proper citation methods. Some (lazy students) will cite the minimum required number of sources simply to avoid the tedium of the citation process itself. (This is a terrible idea; professors will notice.) Others spend valuable time wrangling with increasingly nuanced style changes for each citation. (Try citing Noreen Malone, Hanna Rosin, and June Thomas in Slate’s most recent DoubleX Gabfest.) And citation is messy, cluttering up paragraphs with boatloads of parentheses, footnotes, and page numbers.

For faculty, clinging to current citation conventions seems rooted in the value of consistency. This would be a fair point if it didn’t so smack of stylistic sadism. (We suffered through this and so must you.) Professors unleash any number of confusing citation conventions (MLA and APA are for children, say the Chicago fans) on beleaguered students, with the power-hungriest of the bunch significantly docking grades for something as small as a formatting error.

Conceived during an era when libraries were purely physical places, papers were composed by hand or typewriter, and professors returned graded assignments sprayed with red ink, current systems of citation in academic writing lack value in the digital age. While some will continue to hold out on digital documents, they are quickly becoming the minority as their peers take advantage of digital submission and grading as well as e-readers and computer programs that can easily adjust font, take notes, highlight text, and store (more legible) comments.

Yet some academics refuse to budge. And they’re about to become even more uncomfortable. Enter the hyperlink.

Hyperlink citation (or hypercitation) is an unassuming concept: attributing credit to an original work by formatting hyperlinks directly into the text of an academic paper or assignment. No footnotes, no parentheses, no dates, and no page numbers. While they have made new categories for electronic resources, other citation conventions fail to reflect the vast digitization of information over the past several decades. As it is, scholars increasingly rely on Internet-based platforms for secondary research purposes. Through systems like Google Scholar, JSTOR, Lexis-Nexis, and ProQuest, massive quantities of published academic writings are now entirely digital, searchable, and downloadable online. A citation page for a published work contains much more information than any standard bibliographic entry ever could. Simply put, allowing writers to hyperlink to these writings within the text of a sentence makes more sense.

For print publications that aren’t online, the solution is elegant, permanent, and simple: a hyperlink to the original text’s International Standard Book Number (ISBN) on the Library of Congress Online Catalog (here’s an example). Items that are not available in a digital archive would be temporarily cited in a more traditional manner, but also present researchers with a unique opportunity to expand the field of available knowledge online. By scanning or digitizing primary research and nondigital resources, presumably to an academically accredited site or consortium, data would be better preserved, readily available for others to use, and more easily double-checked for accuracy and methodology by faculty members and research advisors.

True, sites go down, URLs change, and authors go missing. But current systems already rely on hyperlinks for citation purposes. APA style requires writers to include “Retrieved from:” before a cited URL. The MLA style guide is even more antiquated, asking writers to remove all hyperlinks and include brackets around URLs, so readers are sure when they begin or end. (As if bright blue underlined text wouldn’t indicate a single link.) When formatting a hyperlink, writers need only enter a ScreenTip with the author’s name, article title, and publication name, if applicable. If the link breaks, one needs only to enter the information from hovering over the link into a search engine, and voilà, the article will appear. An online solution to an online problem. And with further adoption of some new archival systems, broken URLs may never be a future issue at all.

If hypercitation does indeed work its way up through academia, eventually gaining a foothold in published research, it may rely upon Digital Object Identifiers to maintain stability and consistency across platforms. DOI is a standardized system in which electronic documents are given a unique identifying character string attached to relevant metadata—allowing the file to be tracked and accessed regardless of changes to the URL. DOI is part of a broader movement to bolster digital object architecture online and is even included by traditional citation conventions. In 2004, the European Union began including DOI as part of every official EU publication. Coupled with venerable catalog systems such as the ISBN, researchers are already more than capable of going fully digital.

Hypercitation will require help from forward-thinking faculty to first gain a foothold at the lower levels of academia—written assignments—before eventually moving to the higher levels of academic writing and publication. When it does, writers will more easily avoid plagiarism and muddled sentences. Readers will be able to seamlessly check source documentation and possibly begin to map the genome of an author’s research through microattribution (this is already taking place in the scientific community). Best of all, sites like EasyBib will fall to the wayside and hours of meticulous and worthless formatting will be put to better use.

Like sleeping.