New Bluebook: a call for honest and accurate citation

The 20th edition of the Bluebook was just released about a month ago.  There are several excellent overviews on the differences between the 19th and 20th edition from the Pace Law Library Blog (which includes a link to a chart breaking down the changes), and the Brooklyn Law School Library Blog.  Please stay tuned for updates to the law library’s guide to the Bluebook, which will reflect all of the changes.

The exciting changes are, of course, in Rule 18: “The Internet, Electronic Media, and Other Nonprint Resources.”  The reality of legal research is that very nearly all legal research is done using a source cited using Rule 18.  Legal researchers and writers deserve a robust and comprehensive Rule 18 because citation is meant to support a scholarly conversation.  I believe scholars and students can only have that conversation if the citations tell the reader exactly what source the author relied on.  The new Bluebook tries to promote that scholarly conversation, but, ultimately, stops short.

First, the good things:  The Bluebook supports honest and accurate citations by recommending the use of an archived version of a URL.  Rule 18.2.1(d) encourages authors to archive Internet sources and append the archived URL.  Harvard, home of the legal archiving tool Perma.cc, is understandably thrilled.  Web archiving preserves the webpage that the author saw and allows the reader to see it as it was.  No more dead links!

Rule 18 also now gives far more guidance for how to cite new media things like tweets, podcasts, and blogs within a larger website.  This allows authors to add new media sources to the scholarly conversation.

However, the honesty and accuracy of citation breaks down in two places: electronic statutes and the rule on whether to append a URL.  The 20th edition still privileges the print edition of statutes.  The print is the first choice for what to cite, and citations to Westlaw, Lexis, or Bloomberg get an unwieldy parenthetical tacked on to the end (“(Westlaw through Pub. L. No. 113-93 (excluding Pub. L. No. 113-79))”).  Why does it matter?  Because if authors are doing their research online, then citation rules should make it easier for them to be honest and state what source they actually used.  When the citation rules are made complicated for anything but print, the author is tempted to cite to the print.  Then law review cite checkers have to find the print even though they can be reasonably sure that the author did not, in fact, pull that statute book down from a physical shelf.

The preference for print citation still holds true if the online version of a statute is the same as the original, official version.  Rule 18.2.1(a) lets the author cite the statute “as if [it is] the original print source.”  And that rule is not just for statutes.  Rule 18.2.1(a) lets you omit the URL from your citation any time an “authenticated, official, or exactly copy of a source is available online.”  I disagree with this rule.  If the author used an online source, she should cite to the online source.  That will allow the reader to quickly and easily join the scholarly conversation by finding the source on which the author relied.  Why make the reader go through the extra step of finding out that the source was, in fact, available on the Internet?

The Bluebook does give a possible way to get around the “as if” it was print subterfuge in Rule 18.2.1(b)(i) “Obscure sources.”  That rule provides that if the cited information is available in a print source, but that print source is “so obscure as to be practically unavailable” or if providing the URL “will substantially improve access,” the author should still append the URL.  I say, if we are to have an honest and accurate conversation about sources, then providing a URL will always substantially improve access.  A far simpler and more helpful rule would just say that if you relied on it, you cite to it, and you cite to exactly the thing that you saw…archived with Perma.cc of course.

Happy citation!

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