Monday, 27 February 2012

Those long URLs: readers' suggestions welcomed

The weight of a footnote burdened
with long domain names can
be simply crushing ...
All modern law publishers are faced with the problem of what to do with long URLs ("uniform resource locators" -- a long-winded way of saying website addresses). They provide a vital means of access to information which has been made available on the internet and authors increasingly employ them in footnoted references. However, they can be infuriatingly long, clumsy and unmemorable, which makes them difficult to proof-read and even more difficult for the reader to type with accuracy.  They are also subject to change, for example when the organisation which has uploaded footnoted material makes subsequent amendments to the content of a previously published page (as is the norm with Wikipedia), relocates them to another part of the host website or puts them into archival storage.

While the electronic version of JIPLP can at least put URLs into a hyperlinked format such as
Draft European Parliament Legislative Resolution on the proposal for a regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on agricultural product quality schemes: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getDoc.do?type=REPORT&reference=A7-2011-o266&format=XML&language=EN#title1
or
Draft European Parliament Legislative Resolution on the proposal for a regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on agricultural product quality schemes here
the reader of the printed version faces something like
Draft European Parliament Legislative Resolution on the proposal for a regulation of the European Parliament: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getDoc.do?type=REPORT&reference=A7-2011-o266&format=XML&language=EN#title1
which is not aesthetically very engaging and which, in the context of a printed page with two columns of print per page, may take up three or four lines of a footnoted reference.

Tiny URLs are increasingly popular in society at large, particularly in relation to restricted character communication via Twitter. Use of a Tiny URL would shrink
http://www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getDoc.do?type=REPORT&reference=A7-2011-o266&format=XML&language=EN#title1 [122 characters]
down to
http://tinyurl.com/7fhejga [26 characters]
There does however appear to be some reluctance to use Tiny URLs in formal academic and professional publishing.

A further solution, which is particularly attractive where the material to which reference is made is located on the website of an institutional website with internal search facilities and which is also open to search by the regular search engines such as Google, Yahoo! and Bing, would be to say simply
Draft European Parliament Legislative Resolution on the proposal for a regulation of the European Parliament (available on the European Parliament website)
thus leaving it to readers to find the document themselves if they chose to do so. And is it worth giving online references to the addresses of statutes, treaties and other documents which everyone now knows, or ought to know, are freely available from a large number of different websites.

Readers' thoughts on this subject are welcome, particularly if I receive them ahead of the next JIPLP team meeting which takes place on Monday 12 March. Please feel free to post your comments below.

5 comments:

  1. One other solution (compromise) would be to provide the URL to home page and use the available at atatement: (I have also dropped the http:// as it is not needed if you have www!)
    eg: Draft European Parliament Legislative Resolution on the proposal for a regulation of the European Parliament (available at: www.europarl.europa.eu)

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  2. Jeremy just thought of another possible: If you still want to be facilitative, why not list full URLs after the article not in the footnote. (Similar to References or Bibliography lists). Shouln't take readers long to adjust to the changed behaviour.

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  3. The point of a reference in academic and professional publishing is to provide a source for some asserted fact or prior opinion or analysis. If you are going to publish in hardcopy, or electronically with any expectation of archival value, then the references need to be verifiable and have some prospect of ongoing availability.

    A short URL does not meet this standard. Not only do you have to rely on the underlying long URL remaining valid, but the URL shortening service also has to remain in business. What if tinyurl.com is not around in 20 years? Are you any more confident in bit.ly? Goo.gl? These days there are dozens to choose from.

    A descriptive reference is also of limited value. A search for the same thing in a few years' time may return a completely different document.

    A valid web reference needs to include the URL, and a date of retrieval. At least then there is some chance that someone might be able to track it down in an archive in 50 years' time.

    I would suggest that any academic imprint that wishes to provide an abbreviated URL for the benefit of print readers should do so only in addition to providing the full URL, and preferably would operate its own shortening service. Ox.ly, perhaps?

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  4. Bluntly, a lot of this nonsense is the result of lazy programmers who are more interested in maintaining a consistent, simple internal interface for administrative staff than what it looks like to the outside world. That's why one sees all of the nonsense in the retrieval portion of the sample address: It's not actually a URL, it's a database query. The key is determining which parts don't matter and can be lopped off. For example:

    http://www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getDoc.do?type=REPORT&reference=A7-2011-o266&format=XML&language=EN#title1

    Let's see, now. My browser will understand what language it's receiving (and that will be in the header if it's a proper document in the first place), so we can knock out "&format=XML". If it was anywhere but the EU government, we could also knock out "&language=EN", as the query itself would/should force that; unfortunately, the EU's computer system does NOT query the requesting computer for its language preference, so we actually have to leave that it. The last element ("#title1") is the equivalent of a page number. Thus, the shortest version that retrieves the document in question should be:

    http://www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getDoc.do?type=REPORT&reference=A7-2011-o266

    which is still long, but is also visually readable... and would allow someone to see that they can get the document by searching the underlying site for A7-2011-o266, too.

    Personally, I like GrahamT's suggestion. In American appellate practice, we have to provide a table of authorities with our briefs; it doesn't seem unreasonable to move it to the back and still include it with academic articles, particularly as that would facilitate using shorter (and less distracting) citation forms in the article/footnotes.

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  5. Chris Torrero6 March 2012 16:11

    Part of the solution to your URL problem could be the use of Digital Object Identifiers. According to the Wikipedia page,
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_object_identifier
    the European Publications Office uses them.

    I have always found the European Publications Office most helpful at dealing with enquiries.

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