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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?


  • Aug 27th 200916:08
    by Richard

    Part of this may be that users don’t expect a reference to a book to tell them where to go to get a book – they already understand that they can use library catalogues, libraries, bookshops, Amazon etc to find a book and that they can use the route that is best for them.

    The difference with an electronic reference is that there is an expectation that there is a URL to it that takes them to that reference. There’s still the thought that ‘it’s on the web – it must be free – why can’t I get to it’ There’s very little understanding of the whole ‘electronic library/e-publisher/rights/openURL resolver/DOIs etc etc’ infrastructure that sits behind the link to decide who can access that resource and how they can get it.

  • Aug 28th 200909:08
    by ostephens

    On Twitter, AdrianMachiraju said “For just such reasons, the latest (2008) MLA Style Manual does not require the inclusion of urls in references to online sources.” (http://twitter.com/AdrianMachiraju/statuses/3582313831)

  • Aug 28th 200909:08
    by ostephens

    Just following up on the MLA comment from Adrian, I found quite a bit of information on MLA style from Purdue University at http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/557/09/

    Although this doesn’t seem to match up to the information that Adrian gives, they do include the advice:
    “Some Web sites have unusually long URLs that would be virtually impossible to retype … to address this problem, either refer to a site’s search URL, or provide the path to the resource from an entry page with an easier URL. … the Amazon.com URL for customer privacy and security information is < http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/
    tg/browse/-/551434/104-0801289-6225502>, so we’d need to simplify the citation:

    Amazon.com. “Privacy and Security.” 22 May 2006 < http://www.amazon.com/>. Path: Help; Privacy & Security.

    My immediate reaction is that this is a really bad idea! It seems similar to deciding that a book title is too long, so you won’t bother? I need to think more about this as I’m not sure that I haven’t just contradicted myself – do I favour URLs in citations or not? (very quickly, my first thought is that I favour the inclusion of identifiers – URIs, DOIs, ISBN(-A)s, Handles, etc. etc. but I need to think about this more)

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