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  • InsideTrack
  • January 07, 2015

    Link Rot and Lawyers: Preserving Online Citations

    We have all had that aggravating experience of clicking on an online link and getting a 404 error message, signaling that the page is no longer there. Link rot, or reference rot, is a serious problem in the legal world, but it can be prevented.

    Kris Turner

    Jan. 7, 2015 – We have all had that aggravating experience of clicking on a link and getting a 404 error message, signaling that the page is no longer there. Link rot, or reference rot, may be annoying in any instance but it is obviously a gigantic problem in the legal world. Citations support many of our bedrock arguments in court and beyond. These missing and broken citations are victims of link rot, which occurs when webpages that are cited in a legal document move, change content, or simply disappear.

    Why Worry About Link Rot?

    Link rot is a problem for academia, but also affects legal professionals who may be working to find support for their cases, trying to learn more about a certain kind of law, or simply doing some professional development. As legal citation moves increasingly from print to digital sources, link rot is appearing more and more frequently in law reviews, published books, and even U.S. Supreme Court opinions.

    A study conducted for the Harvard Law Journal looked at how many links rot after only 15 years. It showed, for example, that a reference to an online source in a 1996 paper has an 80 percent chance of not working, while a reference to an online source in a 2012 paper has an 11 percent chance of not working. The older the source referenced, the greater the chance for link rot. Although the study looked at only a few journals, the results reflect a larger and more disturbing trend. (For more information about the study, see the professional paper addressing link rot.)

    It is becoming less likely that a cite will be to a print resource, and the online resources can be frustratingly broken. How can lawyers, law librarians, and other legal professionals ensure that cites stay constant for future readers and lawyers?

    One Potential Solution:

    One solution that is beginning to catch on across the United States is an online preservation service called Perma creates a permanent link to any website that is cited, be it in a law review or a Supreme Court case. To do this, libraries are taking the lead and helping to administer and create these sites so they can be preserved for future lawyers and legal researchers.

    NAMEKris Turner is the Reference and Technology Services Librarian at the U.W. Law School Library. He is the liaison to two of the U.W.’s law reviews and the main contact for at the Law School.

    According to the Perma website, “When a user creates a link, archives a copy of the referenced content, and generates a link to an unalterable hosted instance of the site. Regardless of what may happen to the original source, if the link is later published by a journal using the service, the archived version will always be available through the link.”

    Law libraries become “partners” in and can then teach law review editors, faculty members, lawyers, and judges how to preserve the links that they build their arguments on. The U.W. Law School Library recently became one such partner, and is starting the process of teaching legal professionals how to make their cites live a longer life. (The Marquette University and U.W. law libraries are among the 66 institutions that are founding members supporting

    As becomes more commonplace, Wisconsin attorneys will come across these new and seemingly strange links in legal resources. Here is a functional link from the Harvard Law Review: The link preserves both the webpage and a PDF of the document. For more examples of in action, visit its website.

    How and Where Will Help You launched only about one year ago. Due to its relative youth, still focuses largely on law reviews, since law libraries are in a good position to work with the editors and more easily preserve the online citations. However, attorneys may soon see links in any of these various places:

    • Supreme Court opinions
    • Bar association articles
    • Continuing education materials
    • Treatises
    • Traditional printed books

    For attorneys, citing and archiving may seem like it would not affect their busy professional lives. Oddly, and in a most basic sense, can ensure that this continues to be the case. A working link to a cite in an article, court opinion, or elsewhere is not noticed simply because it works. As more libraries (both academic and law firm) move toward electronic resources and remove print, links become even more critical. links will help ensure that the supporting arguments that all legal professionals depend on will not disappear in the fluid online world.


    Even though is still in its infancy, it is beginning to have a positive impact on the legal world. As more print resources disappear from library shelves, it becomes vitally important to preserve the electronic resources, and the links to them. is one attempt to stop link rot. As becomes more accepted, lawyers hopefully will see fewer 404 error messages in their professional lives.

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