Vanishing Citations in Student Term Papers

February 1, 2001

ITHACA, N.Y. — Since the mid-1990s, the wiring of the U.S. college campus has had a dramatic effect on how students search for information. Much of the research that once was done in libraries now can be done in computer labs or on dorm room PCs. The result is that students increasingly cite popular Internet sites in their class papers instead of sources found in the library.

Now a study by Cornell University librarians shows that many World Wide Web addresses, known as Uniform Resource Locators (or URLs), cited in student term-paper bibliographies often are incorrect or refer to documents that no longer exist.

“The likelihood that web citations would lead to the correct Internet document has decreased significantly,” says Philip M. Davis, life sciences librarian at Cornell’s Albert R. Mann Library. “A URL that doesn’t work means the professor has no way to check the original document for plagiarism.”

Davis and Suzanne A. Cohen, reference service coordinator with the university’s Martin P. Catherwood Library, studied the citation behavior of undergraduates in a large, multi-college class, Introduction to Microeconomics (Economics 101), taught by John M. Abowd, Cornell professor of labor economics in the university’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Their research, “The Effect of the Web on Undergraduate Citation Behavior 1996-1999,” has been reviewed and accepted for publication in a forthcoming issue of theJournal of the American Society for Information Science (JASIS). A preprint of the article is available at .

The study, using term papers between 1996 and 1999, found that after four years, the URL reference cited in a term paper stood an 80 percent chance of no longer existing. URL references stood more than a 50 percent chance of not existing after only six months.

The researchers also discovered a significant decrease in the frequency of scholarly resources cited. Book references dropped from 30 percent to 19 percent. Newspaper citations increased from 7 percent to 19 percent, and web citations increased from 9 percent to 21 percent.

“We are seeing a dramatic move from the use of credible, peer-reviewed materials to popular and unfiltered information,” says Davis.

Universities with large library collections — often a measure by which research universities are compared — should be concerned if students are no longer taking the opportunity to use them, says Davis. Professors should be concerned that they are not exposing their students to academic literature in their field, he says.

The researchers noted that electronic access to information is more convenient for students, and this might be especially true for those who work on their papers the night before they are due. The researchers say that the Cornell library system, like many college libraries, has increased the number of scholarly electronic resources available to the students and faculty.

As a result of this study, Abowd requires at least one professional journal citation in a research paper’s bibliography, and if an Internet link is used, the link must be checked. But from a professor’s perspective, can web citations undermine academic integrity?

“This is a very hard problem — certifying the timeliness and accuracy of Internet citations. I do not expect my Economics 101 students to bullet-proof all of their citations,” says Abowd. “Rather, I hope that they will be able to learn from the experience of having their citations checked and from my expectation that they use certified professional journals.”

Davis and Cohen suggest that professors set guidelines for acceptable citations in course assignments. Also, they believe that collegiate libraries should create and maintain scholarly portals for authoritative web sites with a commitment to long-term access and instruct students on how to critically evaluate resources.

“In the world of academic scholarship, references form a link to original works, give credit to original ideas and form a network of connections to related documents,” says Davis. “A viable link — whether in print or electronic form — is absolutely necessary in order to preserve scholarly communication. Without citations that pass the test of time, we have no way to proceed forward becausewe can no longer see the past.”

Contact Information:

Cornell University

Contact: Blaine P. Friedlander Jr.

Office: 607-255-3290