Hyperlinks are the citation format of the 20th century, but academia hasn’t quite figured out how to use them.

Isaac Newton said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”  We all get our ideas from other people and citation is crucial for naming the intellectual giants upon whose foundation we stand.  It helps in several ways:

  • Your readers will take you more seriously because citation helps you show that you have done your homework.
  • Your readers will understand the intellectual school that has helped you develop your thoughts. They will regard you differently if your citations are all from Fox News versus all from academic journals.
  • Your readers can read some of your sources for themselves to help them understand your ideas better by learning some context of where they came from.

The main point of in-text citations is to communicate where you got each of your ideas from to your readers for the above purposes.  The best way to do this is by using hyperlinks that go directly to the source.  This is the citation method of the 21st century, and academic style guides like APA and MLA need to catch up.  APA and MLA were written for printed media, but today most of what you write will be read online and hyperlinks are more effective than APA or MLA.

The average reader is intimidated by seeing APA or MLA in-text citations and so mass-media publishers try to hide citations. Hyperlinks are better for the average reader because they are not intimidating at all.  Hyperlinks are also better for academic readers because they are the fastest, easiest way to see each reference.

If you want to cite printed resources that are not available online, APA or MLA are some of the best ways to communicate the necessary information.  This is becoming increasingly uncommon.  For example, it is usually easy to find the exact edition of most books at Google Books or Amazon and link to that online description.  All that needs to be added to the hyperlink is the page number (or chapter) of the specific reference.  For example, I might link to Chapter 15 of Kate Turabian’s Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations which has an excellent introduction to old-style print citations.  Although my link will only go to the Google Books home page for the 2007 edition of the book, anyone could use that site to browse through Chapter 15 if she wants to read it for herself.   It is important to add specific details about what part of the website is most relevant to the reference that the hyperlink goes to. One way to do that is to combine APA-style citations and hyperlinks.  For example, I could suggest that Turabian only mentions the word hyperlink on a single page (2007, p. 294).  Here I used an APA-style parenthetical citation and made that into a hyperlink. That provides some of the best of both worlds.

An additional benefit of hyperlinks is that they don’t get in the way of your message.  When used properly, they actually help you communicate better because they emphasize a snippet of text just like any other instance of using a bold or underlined typeface.  Publishers for a popular audience eschew parenthetical references and footnotes because they say it is intimidating for many readers, and even for an advanced reader, they introduce a slight distraction because they add symbols and numbers that aren’t directly useful to the current narrative.  In contrast, hyperlinks force writers to carefully pick what text to emphasize and that is a useful part of written communication.

Hyperlinks will someday replace the more cumbersome in-text citations, but they won’t replace the bibliography.  It is still useful to include a reference list at the end of a research paper if there are more than a couple sources.  That helps the reader see at a glance what ‘shoulders of giants’ you are standing on.  This is particularly important for academic writing and/or research.

You should use hyperlinks in all of your electronic writing.  It will make your emails more persuasive and your essays more useful.  If you don’t know how to create a hyperlink yet, figure it out now and make it a habit. It is really easy.  It will immediately boost your ability to communicate your ideas.

And using hyperlinks is just the first baby step towards moving academic (especially quantitative science) writing into the 21st century.  The scientific paper is obsolete and academic publishing is headed towards a revolution due to changing economics.  For example, Sci-Hub provides a free alternative to outrageously overpriced journal articles which is by itself revolutionizing academic publishing.

2 comments on “Hyperlinks are the citation format of the 20th century, but academia hasn’t quite figured out how to use them.
  1. I really like your idea of using parenthetical in-line citations and making them into hyperlinks. Do you know a citation management technology that does this automatically? It seems like such a clear improvement over the current state of affairs, but I haven’t found a program that does it! Thank you.

    • That is a great idea to incorporate it into a citation manager, but I haven’t seen it implemented in Zotero which is what I now use and it wasn’t part of Refworks when I used that. Some academic writers already do it, so you could email one of them to ask about their method, but it is still fairly rare and I don’t have a ready example for you. I’d appreciate it if you’d let me know if you find a package that does it automatically.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.