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Archive → August, 2009

Double standards

My last post considered the issues of referencing a web resource. In this post I’m going to start bringing in other types of resource that you might reference – books, journals, articles, etc. – but I’m going to come from a slightly different direction, because I’ve started to come to the conclusion that there is a fundamental difference between referencing online and offline resources, and this is worth some consideration.

The difference that I percieve is the difference between a ‘reference’ and a ‘route of access’. A traditional reference to a printed book (or indeed, any offline resource) might look something like this:

Lipson, C. (2006) Cite right, Chicago : University of Chicago Press, c2006.

Whereas a reference to an e-book looks like:

Bronte, C. (1998) Jane Eyre, Project Gutenberg, [Online] Available from: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1260/1260-h/1260-h.htm (Accessed 27 August 2009)

What’s the difference? The latter not only includes the information necessary to identify the resource, but also a route of access to the resource (by providing the URL).

[To digress for a moment, there may be some question of whether it is necessary to include a URL in the reference, or a URI – the difference being that a URI only has to identify a resource, not provide a location – as opposed to a URL which:

“refers to the subset of URIs that, in addition to identifying a resource, provide a means of locating the resource by describing its primary access mechanism (e.g., its network “location”).” (http://labs.apache.org/webarch/uri/rfc/rfc3986.html#URLvsURN)

I know this seems counter-intuitive to those of us who type URLs into our browser everyday and expect to get a webpage back, but some things that look like URLs don’t actually resolve to anything when put in a browser, and they can still count as URIs.]

Anyway, when citing a webpage clearly there is a reason to include the URL – it is probably the only practical way of identifying the webpage in a way that someone else could reliably find it. But what about other references – such as e-books? The following is a valid e-book reference:

Willie, Sarah Susannah (2003) Acting black: college, identity and the performance of race, Taylor & Francis e-book collection, [Online] Available from: http://library.open.ac.uk/linking/index.php?id=311027 (Accessed 10 April 2006)

This contains the information to identify the book, and also the route of access. Not only that, but for most of you out there (those not a member of staff or a student with the Open University) this link almost certainly won’t give you access to the item. It seems to me that this is analagous to me writing the equivalent print reference:

Willie, Sarah Susannah (2003) Acting black: college, identity and the performance of race, New York, Routledge Available from: 378.1981 WIL Main Library, Level 4, University of Durham Libraries (Accessed 10 April 2006)

It is just as true, and just as useless to most readers. The difference being that the latter is not accepted practice for print publications.

Further to this, you note that this item is available both as an e-book, and as a printed volume. Would it matter which the reader went to – almost certainly not. This seems analogous to a reference differentiating between hardback and softback printed editions (which they don’t) – although I can see there may be some issues with pagination should you reference a specific page.

So what is the solution? My own opinion is that the only sensible way of handling links related to this type of material is to use OpenURLs and ‘Link Resolver’ software to allow the linking of reference to resources. By doing this, you allow the question of ‘where can I access this’ to be answered individually for each user, rather than suggest there is a single answer for an e-book, an e-journal or an e-article. By I’d be interested to here what others think?

The missing link

Over the past few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about how we should provide links from a reference to a resource. (There is perhaps another question of whether providing a link from a reference to a resource is desirable in all cases – any comments on this welcome, but for the purposes of the current discussion I’m going to assume that generally given a reference to a resource that is available online, we should provide a link.)

There are several different scenarios for this depending on the type of resource we are referencing.

Let’s start with something that seems simple – a reference to a website. Typically if you cite and reference a website in a piece of writing, the reference would look something like this (using a modified Harvard style):

JISC Technology Enhanced Learning supporting Students to achieve Academic Rigour (TELSTAR) : JISChttp://www.jisc.ac.uk/whatwedo/programmes/institutionalinnovation/telstar.aspx (Accessed 24 August 2009)

This seems relatively straightforward – you are referencing a website, and you include the URL – what could be simpler?

However, if we used this in the context of an Open University course, we recommend that when linking to external websites that you do so via what I would term a ‘managed’ link. So, rather than link directly to http://library.open.ac.uk/ you would get this URL added to a database (maintained by the library) which would assign a locally managed URL for use – for example it could be something like http://managedurls.open.ac.uk/123456 (note, this is not a real example).

Why do we do this? URLs are often not as stable as we’d like, and over the lifetime of a course (several years), a resource may move where it is hosted on the web. By directing the link via a ‘managed’ URL, we can update where this redirects to as a resource is moved. If that resource is referenced in several courses, we only have to update the managed URL in one place to keep all of the links working. It also allows us to easily run link checking on all the links recorded in our managed URL database. Finally, we can collect statistics on the use of the links.

However, there are some problems. It means that an author (or editor) of the learning material can’t just put in a URL – they have to know what the managed URL is for the service – and if one doesn’t already exist, someone has to setup the managed URL before it can be added to the reference.

It also means that the reference example I used above changes into:

JISC Technology Enhanced Learning supporting Students to achieve Academic Rigour (TELSTAR) : JISC, Available from: http://managedurls.open.ac.uk/123456 (Accessed 24 August 2009)

Now, this is still technically correct as a reference and does the job, and within the original context of the reference is probably fine. However, what about if you were to use this reference outside the context of the Open University? Surely using the actual URL for the resource makes more sense (and avoid random traffic via our ‘managed URL’ service coming from use of this reference in non-OU contexts)?

So, it seems desirable that:

  • The ‘real’ URL is preserved so that it can be transferred with the reference if it is exported to another context
  • The ‘author’ of the reference doesn’t need to know the ‘managed’ URL for the service
  • We can manage the link when used within the context of the OU Learning environment

How would we do this?

How about we use the ‘real’ URL as a key to lookup a ‘managed’ URL? So rather than a URL like:


we instead use something like:


We could do this transformation ‘on the fly’, so we wouldn’t need to store the extra information in the reference – we could simply add in the extra information when we display the reference in the learning environment. Any export procedures would simply use the original URL.

Done correctly, if the URL didn’t already exist in our ‘managed’ service, it would simply redirect to the original URL – but at the same time it could alert a member of library staff to the need to add a new managed URL – and apply link checking etc. to it.

One specific method I’ve been pondering is whether we could use an OpenURL construct to push the original URL to a resolver service that would do the work of looking for a ‘managed’ URL. This would look something like:


The OpenURL resolver would need to have access to a database which mapped the URL to whatever the current address of the resource is, but we could make use of existing services like stats collection.

That seems like enough for one post – I’m interested in comments. I’ll come on to linking to other types of resources in subsequent posts.

Quick Reference

This entry was originally posted on the Overdue Ideas blog on June 17th 2009. It is reposted here as it forms a reasonably good introduction to some aspects of the Telstar Project and also for completeness.

The Telstar Project is looking at how to integrate references to resources into a VLE, making it as easy as possible for students to access the referenced resources, while encouraging students (and teachers?) to adopt good practice in referencing and citations – e.g. Using an appropriate reference/citation style).

If you are immersed in the world of Higher education, and especially HE libraries, the above probably makes some kind of sense to you. However, as I have started to look at the problem I’ve realised that I’m not particularly consistent in the way I talk about references and resources, and that I sometimes want to make subtle distinctions between (what I see as) different types of references/resources. I want to try to establish some definitions, and air some of the distinctions I make in my own mind to see if they are really important, or whether I’m guilty of over complicating things. To start with some definitions:


I started with a rather narrow view of a resource, but after discussion on Twitter I was easily persuaded that a ‘resource’ was essentially anything. The only caveat I’d add in this context is that you must be able to reference it – although I’m not sure if this is a necessary caveat (is there anything that can’t be referenced?). So my definition is this:

A resource is something that can be referenced.

In the context of teaching and learning materials common resources will be:Books (print or electronic)Journal articles (print or electronic)Book Chapters (print or electronic)WebsitesDatabases


I think my definition of a reference is relatively straightforward.

A Reference is a description of a resource to the extent that the resource could be discovered on the basis of the description.

Essentially a reference has to be enough for ‘the reader’ to be able to go and find the relevant resource.


I struggled a bit more with the definition of a citation. This was because I was actually trying to find a word for a different concept – something I’ll expand on below. This was clearly using the term citation in a way that wasn’t consistent with the common use. So, my current definition of a citation is:

A citation is an in-context pointer to a reference.

A citation would usually appear in a body of text where you might put a reference, but for the purposes of readability you simply put a pointer to a reference usually in a footnote or endnote to the text.

Other concepts

There is another distinction I find myself wanting to make, but I’m not sure if making these fine grained distinctions is useful or necessary – I’d be interested in comments on this concept:Something that refers to a specific part (or aspect) of the thing that is referenced. A reference would tend to point at say a book or a chapter – would it be useful to have a term for when you refer to a specific part of a resource, when the reference points only at the general resource? If I directly quote from a resource, then I’m not just citing that resource, but a very specific bit of that resource. Does this make a difference?A similar but slightly different thing is that there is a difference between wanting to point to a website as a general resource, and pointing to a website for the purposes of citation – in the latter case you would want to include the date that the website was accessed for the particular piece of information you are using.Comments on the definitions, and any discussion of the latter points welcomed!

Welcome to the Telstar Blog

Welcome to the Telstar blog. You can read more about the Telstar project on this blog’s ‘About’ page, and on the official Telstar website, so I’m not going to bore you with it here. This blog is meant as somewhere to ‘think aloud’ about the ideas and issues related to the Telstar project. The postings here should be seen as part of a conversation about the project, rather than announcements of what the project is going to do. Hopefully at least some of the postings will be interesting enough to stimulate some comment and discussion!