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Information Culture

Information Culture

Thoughts and analysis related to science information, data, publication and culture.

Database creators take note: have URLs that work

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I am tired of explaining to students that the URL for a database entry they copied and pasted from their browser won't work.

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CC-BY-SA image courtesy of Flickr user Takeshi Life Goes On

Here is the problem:

  • A student searches for high quality content in a database that the library pays a lot of money for.
  • Finding a great article, they copy and paste the URL from their browser into a Word document they are using to take notes (now isn't the time to go into all the ways they could/should do this better.)
  • Later that evening, when they go back to their research, they find that the URL they copied and pasted doesn't take them to the entry they need, but to an error page or to the database homepage.
  • Frustrated, the student finds that they have to do their searching all over again - what a waste of time!

There are a couple of reasons for this. The first reason is that sometimes there are on-campus/off-campus access issues. I may talk about that another time. But the second reason is that some databases don't provide persistent URLs for their content. Or you have to click on a special "persistent URL" link or icon to get a link that can be re-used by another person or by yourself later on.

I want this to be easier - the URL indicated at the top of the browser should get you back to where you want to go.

I know that the DOI can be used as a persistent identifier. But but my students don't (not until I tell them about it, anyway). And in this case, I don't need the long term stability a DOI provides, just the ability to get back to an article or database entry within a several week time-span.

I don't think I am asking too much. Some database creators get it right, why can't everyone? When a researcher copies and pastes the URL from their browser they should be able to use that link to back to the same page - whether they are on a search results page, an index page for an article or something else.

I worry because this seems to make life unnecessarily complex for my students, and I can't give them a good reason why this exists. I'm sure that there are technical reasons why this happens. But I don't care. I just want databases to work in a way that students (and other researchers) expect them to. We expect to be able to copy and paste a URL and use it later on.

So, if you are a database creator and your database has this problem: fix it (I'm looking at you, LexisNexis). If you use a database and notice this problem: tell the database creator to fix it.

Okay, rant over.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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