Disappearing Websites: How Do We Cite Them?

Gary Gauthier raises a question every researcher faces again and again. We paraphrase here for brevity:

"What do we do when we have already constructed a correctly formatted citation and the site provider disappears—i.e., sells, merges, or goes out of business? Because I followed EE guidelines, my researched information can still be found. Had I used the now-vanished site's suggested formats, this may not have been the case. But how do I handle the situation in my research notes?"

Drum roll here … "Had I used the now-vanished site's suggested formats, this may not have been the case. …"

Ah, yes, Gary! That's one reason EE citations are more detailed than what most archives recommend. And more detailed than what’s recommended by CMOS,1 MLA,2 and other respected guides.

As for “how to handle in our research notes,” it depends upon what the situation is.

If the site has disappeared off the web, we might keep it and add a comment to the parenthetical “publication data” within our note. For example:

… (http://www.abcdefg.com: accessed 7 September 2017; site inactive on 10 November 2018).

This documents a time frame within which we (or others) should be able to find a site-capture at Wayback Machine.3

If the site has been renamed (or sold to another entity that then renamed it) we might choose to leave the citation as it is, and add a note at the end.

… imaged at Footnote (https://www.footnote.com/123456 : accesssed 9 September 2009); this site is now known as Fold3.

In the latter case, the best approach would be to simply locate the record at Fold3 and cite the current URL.

But then...

A bigger issue also exists for those of us who do research projects that extend across many years. When a much-used site changes its name, should we take time away from research to go back through all our notes, research reports, databases, or whatever to update every citation?

In an ideal world, of course. But the reality in today’s online world is that some mega-sites have changed their names umpteen times since we began our Whatever Project. Changing all our notes every time one of these sites goes through a corporate change could kill a lot of time we could have used for research and evidence analysis.

EE suggests a compromise. If, in the course of correlating and analyzing new findings against older findings, we encounter a name-change situation or a defunct site, we might then correct the notes that are involved. When we reach the point of publishing something from our project, we will check all URLs as a matter of course, as the last item on our work list, and then make all needed updates for whatever portion of our project we are publishing.

1. Chicago Manual of Style, 17th ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017).

2.  MLA Handbook, 8th ed. (New York: Modern Language Association, 2016).

3. Internet Archive, Wayback Machine (https://archive.org/web/web.php).


CanStockPhoto (https://www.canstockphoto.com/comic-speech-bubble-outline-style-51128795.html : downloaded 7 December 2018), item csp51128795 uploaded by vectorsun on 2017-10-01; used under license.


Elizabeth Shown Mills, "Disappearing Websites: How Do We Cite Them?", blog post, QuickTips: The Blog @ Evidence Explained (https://www.evidenceexplained.com/quicktips/disappearing-websites-how-cite-them : posted 7 December 2018).