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 we need to cite those intellectual sources, whether they be giants or midgets, upon whose foundation we stand.  Citation helps writers in several ways:

  • It makes your readers take you more seriously because citation helps you show that you have done your homework.
  • Your readers will understand the intellectual traditions that have helped you develop your thoughts. A writer who only cites Islamic sources will have a different perspective than someone who gets information from fashion publications or someone with diverse sources.
  • They help readers gauge the validity of your material.  They will regard your reliability differently if your citations are all from Fox News versus academic journals.
  • It helps readers find more depth because they can read some of your sources for themselves to help them understand your ideas better and learn context about where they came from.
  • Citation gives credit where credit is due.  This upholds intellectual honesty and gives more incentives for people to create new ideas because they will at least get credit for them.

These are the reasons why we do citations.  The modern traditions for doing citations on paper were only established over the past century, so the conventions that colleges teach were only developed a relatively short time ago.  The first primitive version of the APA style was published in a booklet in 1929. The MLA style only began in 1951. Although footnotes were probably invented in 1568, they were mostly used for annotation and probably were not used for citations until centuries later.  The modern use of numbered citation systems were only codified into the Vancouver System in 1978!  In contrast, hyperlinks were first developed for electronic text in the 1960s and already became the dominant form of citation in electronic documents in the 1990s.

Hyperlinks are better than older citation systems because they immediately call up the source, they are less intrusive for readers, they are easier to produce, and they convey additional information about the source by a judicious choice of the highlighted text.  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 hyperlinks are more effective today because most text is electronic.

The average reader is intimidated by seeing APA or MLA in-text citations and so mass-media publishers usually 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.

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.

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.

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.

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