Aaron Dishy is an IPilogue Writer and a 3L JD Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.
Web resources survive only if a third party preserves them, and not all third parties initiate the preservation of web-based content. A website owner may abandon one hosting platform for another, or an author might remove content on their own accord. As content changes or is removed, hypertext links that direct a user to a resource are disrupted. In each case, hypertext vulnerability threatens the integrity of resulting scholarship, as footnotes may no longer support the claims they purport to.
This phenomenon is known as link rot or reference rot. Link rot occurs when URL hypertext fails to direct an individual to a targeted file, webpage, or server, due to that resource being relocated or unavailable. Colloquially, these links are broken or dead. Reference rot occurs when a hypertext link remains active, but the information referenced by the citation is no longer present or has been modified. There are limited surveys on the nature of link rot in Canada. However, a study of Electronic Thesis Dissertations deposited between 2011-2015 at Concordia University, determined that nearly a quarter of hypertext links cited exhibited linkrot.
Perma.cc, developed by the Harvard Library Innovation Lab, is the largest caching solution to link rot used by authors and journal editors to integrate the preservation of cited material with the act of citation. Although used primarily by American institutions, the tool has also been adopted by some Canadian universities. When a user creates a Perma.cc link, Perma.cc archives the referenced content and generates a link to an archived record of the page. Notwithstanding changes to an original source, the archived record is always available through the Perma.cc link.
However, Canadian institutions might be wary of the adoption of Perma.cc for two reasons. First, Canadian “data sovereignty” — Canada’s right to control the access and disclosure of its digital information subject only to Canadian laws — is at increased risk if the preservation of our academic output is subject uniformly to American intellectual property law. Similarly, Canadian citations and reference information could be shared with foreign governments, potentially without fair notice.
Second, federal, and provincial governments have gone to lengths to promote Canadian “data residency.” Data residency aims to ensure that valuable information is stored within and accessed from inside of Canada. This protects information by making reasonable and localized security arrangements to prevent unauthorized access, collection, use, disclosure, or disposal. Additionally, it also better allows for data to be kept under the laws and policies of any province or territory.
It must be acknowledged that several attempts have been made to address link rot in Canada. For example, programs like WebCite provided an on-demand archive site, designed to digitally preserve scientific and educationally important materials. However, such endeavors generally lack the scope, institutional backing, and effective monetary resources to sustain themselves long-term. For Canadians to better preserve academic output, the creation of a Perma.ca may be our best bet.