To link or not to link: mainstream media and no links at all

By Grant Jacobs 03/06/2010

This is a back story to my early article To link or not to link: is that the question? I put this aside at the time, as I didn’t want to burden sciblogs with too much on the same rather niche topic. We’re a modest-sized collective, not something as large as scienceblogs where a theme amongst a few writers would just get swallowed up on-going flood of posts. The other reason – without wanting to put anyone off – is that I worried that debating this was a case of flogging a horse so long dead it had no flesh.

Allow me to start by repeat my revised Shakespeare

To link, or not to link: that is the question:

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to not know

The slings and arrows of the source,

Or to take arms against a sea of urban myth,

And by linking end them? …

An on-going debate amongst some writers is that articles from the media ought to contain links, as most don’t. Here I’m not talking about media articles that defer links until the end of the article (as Nick Carr or Aimee were experimenting with), but those that don’t include them at all. (To link or not to link: is that the question? addresses making links less disruptive, suggesting that in the longer term the question of where links should be placed is perhaps likely to be resolved as a web design/programming issue than a writing issue.)

I’ll stick my neck out and offer a few totally off-the-cuff remarks about including links in articles, which is say that these thoughts are spur-of-the-moment rather than exhaustive, researched or definitive. Comments are invited; I’m open to alternative views.

I will curiously write this with few links as it is rumination rather than a survey or a formal argument for a case. (Please don’t be mislead by my putting this forward in a definitive style.) For those must know the whys and wherefores, what brought this topic back to mind was a tweet by @BoraZ referring to Mathew Ingram’s blog article extolling links. Ingram’s article is a reply to Nicholas Carr’s article on the topic; Carr argues not that links should not be present, but that they ought to be at the end of articles. Here I’m more interested in the mainstream media (MSM) not providing links in their on-line copy and what might be linked.

Posts I’ve seen in the past on this topic refer to at least three main things: the type of media, where in the article external sources should be placed, and what should be linked.

A point I would like you to you carry with you as you are reading is that people who are reading news on-line may likely be ’going around’ the media, trying to locate other sources on the same issue to form their own opinion. It occurs to me that media want to be showing that they are pulling the bits well to encourage loyalty to their product and links may serve this role.

On-line vs. print

I have sympathy that newspaper or magazines are reluctant to include URLs in the print copy. (Although there is an argument to list them there too.)

There is also the practical issue that journalists will already have their time cut out, and I doubt their bosses (or clients for freelancers) are paying them more for including links. Thus, you might argue there isn’t a lot of incentive for these writers to include them. This might suggest that it is editors that needed to be moved rather than the writers.

The question of space is not the same issue on-line as in print. Space is at a premium in print, where a balance of reading material and advertising is needed, but on-line references can be listed either within the text with no space ’cost’ or at the end, where they don’t impact on the layout or the advertising (which will be placed at the top or upper portion of the sides).

Writers should be listing sources at the end of their submissions. (This is my understanding; if it’s wrong, feel free to correct it.) Is it difficult to indicate that a selection of these are to be listed on web-hosted copies of the article? Similarly, looked at from the media organisation point of view, is it difficult for newspapers (etc.) to include these in the on-line copies? I wouldn’t have thought so. If so, is it more the will of the editors than the effort or means at play here?

What should be linked?

For formal sources, like research articles or texts, I can see no excuse for not linking to them. None at all. At the very least the sources should be given in plain text in a form that they can readily be utilised. This means that all stories based on research science, for example, ought to cite the research source accurately. Despite this I rarely see the MSM giving research sources.

I’ve seen some argue all that is needed is sufficient keywords that readers might locate the source. I disagree. Businesses should be solving clients’ problems not prolonging them. It isn’t always that easy to locate the source, especially for those without a knowledge of the field. For those with expertise in the area, but little free time, it denies them easy means to verify the claims made in the article.

Quotations are now frequently available on-line as videos, podcasts and so on. Citing them, when available, allows readers to see the full context of the quote. Context matters. As most readers have, I’ve seen all sorts of misleading use of quotes, even from what would usually be thought of as very reputable sources (including a few scientists with an ideological viewpoint on an issue).

Links to organisations or people may seem less needed and more a service to curious readers. They can often be easier for readers to locate on their own, provided the person or organisation is well-known. For those that don’t fit this mould, or for where the public perception of the person or organisation and the reality differs, links can give confidence to readers that you have reliable sources that accurately describe the expertise (or not) of the person, the true nature of the organisation, etc., backing the stance you give them.

Where in the article?

The easiest (laziest, cheapest) place for them would be the end of the article, leaving the text as it was for the print edition (any revision for on-line copy excepted).

While easy and better than no links in my opinion, this ignores opportunities to move away from the limitations of print media and exploit new ways of presenting documents and backtracks to traditional layout. (This is part of the thinking behind To link or not to link: is that the question?)

Bloggers’ style is usually to link the text within the article. (Some recommend this be on the verbs that point to the source: Expert A said ’…’; the B Star-Times reported ’…’, and so on. This isn’t always possible, however.)

Which is better?

A problem with having the links at the end is that they are disconnected from the text that refer to them. This one of the reasons, of course, that blogging style refers to sources directly. A traditional compromise is to use endnote marks, like the numbered references I have used in some of my articles. The footnote of To link or not to link: is that the question? has more on this. The ’disconnection’ issue can be resolved using web programming (as I did in my own web-based document format).

Carr argues the disruption to reading is too great to place the links with the text. My feeling that this, in the longer term, is too mainly one of website design and limitations of the current blogging software, as I discussed in To link or not to link: is that the question?

In the longer term, I believe the solution is to include links in-line, and to work on web design / programming to better present these in less traditional manners that adapt to different readers needs.

Other articles in Code for life:

Public voting for Quark prizes now open

Science communication shorts

Professors, lost souls with great oratory power?

Writing a popular science book; links and writers’ warnings

Post-embargo publication delays: be gone

Media thought: Ask what is known, not the expert’s opinion

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