Where Has All the History Gone?

The editor of the journal Theory & Psychology, Hank Stam (U. Calgary, Canada) posted the following rather disconcerting message to the e-mail list of the Society for the History of Psychology today:

Some of you may be interested in an article that appeared in the April 2008 issue of Technology and Culture. The authors, Edmund Russell and Jennifer Kane argue that internet citations found in well-established history journals are much less secure than some perhaps believe. Here are a couple of excerpts:

“Scholars in the sciences, however, have raised alarms about the frequency with which Internet sources have disappeared after their citation in journals. An influential article in Science found that 13 percent of Internet citations in three leading journals were inactive within 27 months of publication. In five leading medical journals, 4.4 percent of Internet citations were inaccessible within three months of publication. In six oncology journals, 33 percent of Internet citations decayed within twenty-nine months.

“. . . . We examined the reliability of World Wide Web citations in two leading history journals (Journal of American History and American Historical Review) over seven years and found that 18 percent of web links cited over that period were inactive. The problem increased over time. In articles published seven years earlier, 38 percent of web citations were dead. A digital archive enabled us to locate 57 percent of the missing web pages, leaving 43 percent unavailable even to scholars who use the archive. These findings suggest that historians (and probably other humanists) face a major problem in scholarly practice: we are citing Internet sources as though they were permanent, when in fact they are ephemeral.”

About Christopher Green

Professor of Psychology at York University (Toronto). Former editor of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. Creator of the "Classics in the History of Psychology" website and of the "This Week in the History of Psychology" podcast series.

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