Newly published research by RCSI library staff has highlighted the emerging problem of reference rot.
The sourcing of the original references of scholarly articles is an integral part of academic learning. The increased use of on-line resourcing and the referencing of same has resulted in the emerging phenomena of 'reference rot'. This relates to the combination of two elements which are commonly found when attempting to access web pages which are:
1. Link rot - the article or webpage resource identified by the URL no longer exists or has moved to another site, resulting in the ubiquitous '404 not found' error message.
2. Content drift - where the resource identified changes over time and may evolve into a resource that bears no resemblance to the content originally referenced.
Research by RCSI library staff, published by Emergency Medicine Australasia (EMA), found that over 34% of URL references between 2010-2014 in the journal EMA suffered from reference rot and were no longer accessible 1 . This is in the midrange of previous studies which found rates of reference rot ranging from 20% to 70% 2,3,4 .
The problem of reference rot is a serious one. URL references are becoming more prevalent; the number of URL references in the journal EMA increased each year between 2012-2014. A continuance of this trend allied to the problem of reference rot will mean ever more references will become inaccessible. Academic scholarship relies on references to support the claims made by authors; reference rot makes academic papers vulnerable to references which no longer support these claims.
Some solutions to the problem of reference rot have been suggested. The use of DOIs (Digital Object Identifiers) rather than URLs is one, these may provide a more reliable and robust mechanism for citing digital, scholarly articles 5 . Archiving websites, which attempt to archive portions of the web in order to ensure future access , such as the Internet Archive and Webcite, provide an alternative solution. Neither of these solutions are flawless however and both have their own problems 6 . The original paper can be viewed at http://epubs.rcsi.ie/libraryart/8/
1. O'Connor, C. & O'Connor A. (2015), 'Reference rot': A developing problem in Emergency Medicine Australasia. Emergency Medicine Australasia. doi: 10.1111/1742-6723.12459
2. Klein M, Van de Sompel H, Sanderson R, Shankar H, Balakireva L, Zhou K, et al. Scolarly Context not Found: One in five articles Suffers from Reference Rot. PloS one. 2014; 9(12):e115253
3. Gul S, Mahajan I, Ali A. The growth and decay of URLs citation: A case of an online Library & Information Science Journal. Malaysian Journal of Library & Information Science. 2014;19(3):27-39.
4. Zittrain J, Albert K, Lessig L. Perma: Scoping and addressing the problem of link and reference rot in legal citations. Legal Information Management. 2014; 14902):88-89
5. Keele BJ, Pearse M. How Librarians Can Help Improve Law Journal Publishing. Law Library Journal. 2012; 104:383
6. Klein M, Van de Sompel H, Sanderson R, Shankar H, Balakireva L, Zhou K, et al. Scolarly Context not Found: One in five articles Suffers from Reference Rot. PloS one. 2014; 9(12):e115253