More than one-third of online footnotes disappear, researchers find

AMES, Iowa --A new study by Iowa State University researchers has found that more than 33 percent of online footnotes - or links to Web citations in professional journals - have disintegrated within a four-year period.

News of the study by Michael Bugeja, director of ISU's Greenlee School of Journalism, and Assistant Professor Daniela Dimitrova of the Greenlee School was published this week in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

"The erosion of online footnotes threatens every discipline and methodology," Bugeja said, "and is particularly ominous in the hard and medical sciences because replication--verifying findings--becomes increasingly difficult or, in some cases, impossible without stable archiving, which libraries used to provide.

"It was called a book shelf."

For instance, Bugeja noted, communication researchers will not be able to replicate findings in his and Dimitrova's study because more footnotes will have disintegrated in the three months since the study was completed.

Dimitrova says the study has implications for all levels of academia - from university professors and students to their counterparts in secondary and elementary education.

"If you can't rely on a footnote, then the validity of these studies and papers is undermined," she said. "How can people determine if the study is genuine or if the data is faked?"

Bugeja and Dimitrova analyzed more than 1,126 footnotes from online versions of five top communication journals. They found that 373 of the links, or 33 percent, no longer functioned. "Of the 753 links that worked, only 424 pointed to information pertinent to the citation," the Chronicle of Higher Education reported.

Bugeja and Dimitrova analyzed footnotes in articles published from 2000 to 2003 in Human Communication Research, the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, the Journal of Communication, Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, and New Media & Society.

In looking back to find references, the study found that government Web sites (.gov) were the most reliable, followed by academic sites (.edu), organizations (.org), and finally, general sites (.com). However, the largest number of citations used in the articles came from .com Web sites.

Anthony Grafton, a professor of history at Princeton University and author of "The Footnote: A Curious History," also is quoted in the Chronicle article about the Iowa State research.

Grafton, who has seen a draft of the Bugeja-Dimitrova study, reportedly said, "I'm looking at a world in which documentation and verification melt into air. ...My students come to college less and less able to negotiate a book landscape and more and more adept at negotiating the Web."

Bugeja is distressed that Google is going forth digitizing entire libraries without fully realizing that Internet access may corrupt the fire-walled medium of the book.

"A book is the sole source of information, printed by publishers, with exact copies distributed to libraries," Bugeja observes. "But if books are digitized for online access so that others can copy, paste and manipulate text--and then re-distribute their work via Internet--in time, who will be able to distinguish original passages from manipulated derivatives?"

Bugeja and Dimitrova will present findings and recommendations of their research on May 29 in New York City at the International Communication Association. The association awarded "top paper" status in the technology division to Bugeja and Dimitrova's paper.