What’s Rotten About Legal Scholarship, and How to Cure It: A Georgetown Symposium

When Supreme Court justices cite Internet sources in their opinions, how do they ensure the integrity of those sources for future legal scholars? The answer, unfortunately, is not very well, as illustrated by this dose of digital schadenfreude visited upon Justice Alito.

404This was the central problem explored by a one-day conference at Georgetown University on October 24, “404/File Not Found: Link Rot, Legal Citation and Projects to Preserve Precedent.”

Over six sessions, the program identified and addressed the risks of citing to ephemeral online sources in court opinions and legal scholarship, frequently highlighting a key distinction between “link rot,” or the disappearance of a cited link, and “reference rot,” which occurs when the cited reference is no longer the same as it was when the author cited it. Archived recordings of each of the day’s sessions are available at the conference website.

CALL member Raizel Liebler, Head of Faculty Scholarship Initiatives at John Marshall Law School and a leading voice in the effort to fix these problems, brought attendees up to date on some of the most recent instances showing that courts have been slow to react to awareness of the problems.

In her remarks, which begin at about 22:18 of the archived noon session, Raizel shared her findings from the most recent Supreme Court term, which already reveal 12 instances of link rot and 13 of reference rot in the Court’s opinions. She also pointed out several errors in Supreme Court citations to online sources, including typos and cases where justices cited URLs incorrectly.

Along with June Liebert, Raizel co-authored a key study, Something Rotten in the State of Legal Citation: The Life Span of a United States Supreme Court Citation Containing an Internet Link, published in the Yale Journal of Law & Technology in 2012. A link to that article was provided to conference attendees, along with Raizel’s summary of broken government links from the Supreme Court’s 2013-2014 term.

How a simple Perma link can ensure the integrity of an online citation, from Kim Dulin's presentation (used with permission)
How a simple Perma link can ensure the integrity of an online citation, from Kim Dulin’s presentation (used with permission)

One strategy to address citation rot discussed throughout the program is Perma.cc, a partnership among dozens of libraries to create permanent citation links for court opinions and legal scholarship.

In the program’s final session, Kim Dulin, Associate Director for Collection Development and Digitization at the Harvard Law School Library, provided a detailed introduction to Perma. In her 20-minute presentation, which begins at about 15:20 of the Link Rot Strategies II session, she walked attendees through the steps required to create a perma link, from selection to publication and preservation.

The program was a heartening indication that librarians have wrestled seriously with the problems of citation rot and made considerable headway in developing sound strategies for fixing them.

A central takeaway from the day is that the problems are not technical, but institutional and even interpersonal. Raising awareness, building consensus, and strengthening cooperation are the most difficult obstacles we have yet to overcome.