Source citations in your online writing

The funny thing about WordPress (the platform that hosts this blog) is that it will try to find other related blog postings, and link to them at the end of each new post. On one of my recent blog entries concerning source citations, WordPress recommended the post “The new citation,” originally published on 29 March 2010 in the (non-genealogy) blog Brave New World. This blog is written by Tania Sheko, the “Learning Enhancement Coordinator and  teacher librarian at Whitefriars College in Melbourne, Australia.”

In “The new citation,” Tania recommends using hyperlinks to sources rather than footnote or endnote citations. In her words,

The hyperlinked citations are much more than an attribution of cited sources; they are also:

  • a direct link the the source itself
  • a solution to wordy explanations which interrupt the flow of the sentence
  • a dense and complexly charged way of writing

She concludes,

What I like best about hyperlinked citation is that it leads me to places I haven’t discovered, giving me the option of following new research paths, often serendipitous. It’s an exciting way to learn – not didactic, not limiting, but opening up options for independent learning.

Shouldn’t we start to teach students this new way of reading and writing?

This is an extremely interesting concept for writing online, especially in blogs. You will notice that many bloggers already do this exact thing, when writing their blog posts. In this post, for example, I include hyperlinks to both “The new citation” and to the home page of Brave New World.

But is this really a citation?

In some ways, yes, and in some ways no, from the perspective of a genealogist.

For the purposes of connecting to an original online source, a hyperlink is efficient, and should be used wherever possible. As Tania calls it, hyperlinked online writing is certainly a “new way of writing.”

On the other hand, it neglects to take into consideration the mutable nature of the Internet. Simply put, websites change. Pages and the resources held on them move and sometimes disappear. When this happens, will you be left without a citation?

If you are citing an online record source–whether it is an image copy, an abstract, a transcription, a family tree, or an article–you still need to provide a full source citation. As discussed in the post “Source Citations: Getting It ‘Right,’ part two,” a proper citation for Tania’s blog post, as part of a bibliography or “Sources Used” list, would be

Sheko, Tania. “The new citation.” Brave New World. Posted 29 March 2010. : 2011.

This citation provides the name of the author, the title of the article, and the publication (blog) name. In addition to this, it would be proper to note the date of the post (just in case she decided to post another article with the same title). And then of course the URL (the publication location) and the date on which the article was accessed. This second date reveals a recent date on which the particular item was located on the cited webpage. As mentioned in my earlier post, if the page moves or disappears in the future, it may be possible to access the item using the Wayback Machine or a similar utility.

All this being said, I do also agree with Tania’s point. The capability to embed a hyperlink to the source directly in the text is there, so why not use it? My recommendation would be to use both methods. Hyperlink within the text itself, but also include a source list (or numbered endnotes) with the full citations. This solution would allow the independent research described in Tania’s blog, but also meet the standards for citations expected by genealogists.

I would like to hear the thoughts of others on this topic.

11 thoughts on “Source citations in your online writing

  1. OK, I see the merit of using both methods (although I’m so technically challenged I may not manage the hyperlink for a while), but I wouldn’t pick the hyperlink over the standard citation. And I’m working so hard on the standard citation, I may never get to the hyperlink.
    On the other hand, in my limping blogging life, I posted a new blog yesterday. In it I mentioned help which had been given by a fellow blogger. Afterwards, I decided that it would have been polite to mention her blog with a link to that blog or to that blog site; so I guess “two birds point the way,” and I need to learn to include hyperlinks in my blogs if not in anything else as yet.
    Continual thanks for the help this series gives me.

  2. Thanks, Michael, for taking the time to read my post, and for raising some very interesting and important points. I agree with you that we need to include traditional citations as well as hyperlinks in online writing. As a teacher librarian, I am ‘responsible’ for teaching students how to write a bibliography or at least to remind teachers to embed a bibliography in their assignment. What I’m noticing (in Victoria, Australia, at least) is that citation is almost entirely ignored. My older son’s education was an exception to the rule because he studied the International Baccalaureate which required citation, and this prepared him for university. The majority of Victorian students will probably be faced with creating a bibliography for the first time when they attend university. When I was at university in the late 70s and early 80s we weren’t even required to submit a proper bibliography – it was optional!

    Your post made me re-think what I had said in mine. I realise that I consider my blog as fairly transitory. I’m not assured of an audience, and I don’t expect anyone will read what I’ve written after the date, so it doesn’t lead me to consider a more robust citation method.

    With regard to our students, I’m still struggling to undo their previous teaching (from primary school) with regard to plagiarism. This is simplistic and focuses on the fear of being ‘found out’ if they use others’ information. They have been told to ‘say it in their own words’ but not to use a citation. With online, casual writing I think that teaching them to link to the source would free them from the misconception that they have to pretend that they used original ideas. Of course, the hyperlink would also take the reader to the source, and hopefully encourage wider and deeper reading.

    Thankyou again for raising such an interesting discussion.

    • Thanks for reading my post, Tania. If you have read any of my other posts on source citations, you can see that it is a topic of great interest among genealogists, who deal with a wide variety of both original and derivative sources.

  3. Just a comment on the transitory nature of the interwebs … I also take screenshots of my info in context AND for an entire page, save as PDF/print to PDF if at all possible. There is no guarantee, with the “tweaking” that happens with online databases, that my info will always be available even IF the website is.

    • That is a good tip for anyone conducting online research to remember. But the purpose of a source citation is not just so you can find it again. See Elizabeth Shown Mills’s comment on my blog post, “Source Citations: Why Form Matters, part two.” I only wish that when I first started doing online research back in 1997-1998, I had done more than just printed out the information. I still have all of the paper, but I don’t know where some of it came from!

      • I do cite, BUT I also capture the data in case my citation becomes meaningless due to the poof factor. That would save you from hoping that the Wayback Machine had archived the page you need. I was just carrying that thread in your post a little further afield.

        And back when I printed out everything I could find, as you did (since my subconscious was POSITIVE that this cool info would disappear at some point), I had the options enabled the date and URL printing (luckily, by chance). Which actually, now that I think of it, is another tip for those printing out their “finds” – I prefer the screenshots and print-to-PDF now, to save paper, but it’s best to make sure that headers & footers are enabled if you choose the PDF route. If printing to PDF doesn’t work (I encounter that issue sometimes), just make sure your screenshot captures the full URL in the browser bar (the “properties” will record the date you snapped the screenshot).

  4. Michael, I am in the middle of doing report for presentation. I hate how sourcing ruins the flow of the presentation. If you are able to do live links and connect I think it would be smoother. Alas I agree some times sites go away and then you are left in a lurch.

  5. I find this interesting and can expound a lot more on it but am glad you are all writing and reading and responding to these situations. I have to find a method that does not interrupt the flow of presentation.

  6. Michael: I’m with you. Most important is the footnote. The hyperlink is a nice bonus, but I want the actual footnote on the same page, so if the one pages gets separated from the rest of the text, I still have the footnote. Kind of like putting a citation on each page of a document.

  7. Pingback: Source Citation Blog Posts – the Link List (31 Weeks to a Better Genealogy Blog, Week 7) « Planting the Seeds

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