rusq: Vol. 51 Issue 1: p. 89
Sources: Vanishing Act: The Erosion of Online Footnotes and Implications for Scholarship in the Digital Age
Sarah M. Vital

Sarah M. Vital, Reference and Instruction Librarian, Saint Mary’s College of California, Moraga, California

Bugeja and Dimitrova begin with a brief history of the use of citations and how they have helped solidify scholarship by providing scholars with a historical record of the development of ideas. They identify the difference between traditional print sources and web-based resources in the reliability of retrieval of cited works.

The authors became aware of citation problems while completing their own journalism and communication research, noticing that the citations they wanted to retrieve often were inaccessible, particularly when the citations were from online sources. Using scholarly journals in their field of journalism and communication as a sample, they embarked on a formal research study to find how many, and how fast, online sources being cited in academic journals are becoming inaccessible.

Although web archiving is a timely and important topic, the treatment of the issue in this book is not sufficiently substantial. The scant 61 pages of text barely touch on the complexity of the problem. Additionally, the authors make many unsubstantiated claims. For instance: “with the advent of easily accessible data from a library open online at all hours, citation mistakes are common and routinely overlooked” (3). This might be true, but the authors make no reference to any research suggesting citation errors are more common now than in the past.

According to the authors, new librarians and computer scientists are experienced with the ease of technology but are not as concerned with later retrieval. Hence, one stated goal of the book is to challenge these professionals to address preservation issues. However, the authors fail to include discussion of some of the key efforts currently being used to preserve online content, such as LOCKSS (“Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe”), initiated by Stanford University and used by scholarly publishers around the world.

The biggest flaws of this book are inaccuracies in defined vocabulary and errors in some of the concepts described. Throughout the first chapter, the phrases “online citations” and “web citations” are used without being defined; the result is a lack of clarity regarding the major topic of the book. Compounding the issue, the authors fail to distinguish between websites and online version of traditional journals. In another example of confused vocabulary, the authors incorrectly equate Digital Object Identifiers (DOIs) with barcodes. Although the authors correctly assert that DOIs allow publishers to connect users to content more reliably than via URL, the incorrect conflation with computer readable patterns distracts from the quality and clarity of the message.

This book serves as a good cautionary tale about why preserving research published online is rightfully a pressing issue. The authors’ research findings show clearly that the problem exists, and they lay out a compelling case for why this issue must be addressed and resolved. But a reader who wants to understand the issue of preserving research, whether online or in print, would be better off consulting the recent scholarly and trade literature for more information on what is being done about the issue so that those efforts can be understood, improved, and supported.

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