Reference Rot: An Emerging Threat to Transparency in Political Science
by Aaron L. Gertler, Independent Scholar and John G. Bullock, University of Texas at Austin
Research is trustworthy only to the extent that it is transparent—that is, to the extent that scholars show how they have gathered their data and drawn their conclusions. In many disciplines, the practice of publishing links to datasets and other online resources is one of the main methods that scholars use to make their work transparent. But the method cannot work if the links don’t, and very often, they don’t. We show that most of the URLs ever published in the leading political science journal, the American Political Science Review, no longer work as intended. The problem is severe in recent as well as in older articles; for example, more than one-fourth of links published in the APSR in 2013 were broken by the end of 2014. We conclude that “reference rot” limits the transparency of political science research. We also describe simple steps that authors can take to combat the problem: when possible, they should archive data in trustworthy repositories, use links that incorporate persistent digital identifiers, and create archival versions of the webpages to which they link.