Sunday, April 21, 2013


Can you trust what you read on a blog? Is the information reliable, or the opinion supported by credible evidence? It’s actually not that hard to tell—the answer is a bibliography.

Lots of people tune out at the mention of a bibliography, yet, in sense, that’s what links are. I hadn’t really thought about it like that until a few years ago when I asked on this blog whether I should keep dead links. My friend Mark from Slap said something in the comments that’s stuck with me ever since:
I also leave them as is. Links are still the closest thing we've got to a bibliography when it comes to web pages.

It sucks when material is removed from the web, and it's frustrating for readers, but even if a link doesn't work anymore, the citation can be important.
He’s absolutely right, and I’ve been sure to include links ever since. There was one post (I’ve forgotten which one, but it was a long time ago) in which I used footnotes instead of links, and it was to make sure the sources of my information were documented. I didn’t do it again because, among other things, I didn’t want to make readers scroll down to find out what the footnote was for; links are easier for readers.

I believe that among the duties of any blogger is providing links to background information so that readers can check things out for themselves. So for example, if I mention a statistic or reprint a quote, I usually provide a link to the source I got it from. Sometimes, that’ll be a link to another of my posts, possibly the first time I mentioned the same thing. Whenever possible, I trace things back to the original source, rather than link to someone else who quotes from it (and if I link to another of my blog posts, it’ll usually have the original source links).

This is similar to what I do in my “offline” world. I often make PDFs of articles that I find interesting or that I know I may want to refer to in the future to check all the sorts of things that don’t always get recorded in histories, or that may not be easily accessible. Many times, they’re for future blog or podcast topics, and I need the original links to include when I publish.

Here’s what I do to document them:

First, I often use Print Friendly to make PDFs of articles. Many sites have it as an included option (including this blog; if you look at the comments for any post, you’ll see the button). This usually creates a highly readable print version of the article, and it includes the original URL in the PDF (and the URL’s clickable, which is a bonus).

Some sites don’t play well with Print Friendly, though, and then I usually use Print instead, choosing the option to make a PDF. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always include the complete URL and the fragment that does appear is often not clickable; not very useful when you want to return later.

So, I add an electronic post-it kind of note inside the PDF, where I paste the original URL. I have the full version of Adobe Acrobat, but you can probably do it in other PDF creator programs, too; I don’t think Acrobat Reader let’s you (someone can let me know in the comments if it does).

Both of these options are fine for minimal citation, since it provides all the basic information now required by many standard academic style reference manuals (intended for research papers). The required style is moving away from including the date retrieved (Wikipedia still uses that), and date is the one thing that’s not directly accessible in my method (unless I type it in the note, which I haven’t yet done). Still, I suppose it could be inferred from the date I created the PDF.

I do all of this because I’m pretty pedantic about documenting things for my blog and podcast, whether I ever use the information or not. If was ever to write a book, I’d be glad to have all that data for citation.

I know that most people aren’t even nearly as obsessive about citing their sources, particularly if it’s for something they may never use for blogging. But if I’ve learned one thing from the recent marriage equality debate in New Zealand, it’s that documenting source material is really important for establishing credibility.

Be all that as it may, you now this is what I look for when evaluating information I find on blogs or news sites: Links to sources. They really are the closest thing we've got to a bibliography for web pages.


Roger Green said...

You SHOULD write a book. It would be about the parallel paths for marriage equality in NZ and the US.

Arthur (AmeriNZ) said...

That's a good topic, actually.