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Referencing Digital Documents

Referencing Digital Documents

by Brian Grant

(Ed: in Oct, 2006, a member raised a question about referencing digital documents on the AESE listserve, to which Brian Grant responded eloquently. With his permission, that response is reproduced below. The exerpt is from his book Geoscience Reporting Guidelines. More information is available on his website:

The traditional approach to referencing still applies to the extent that you should be able to identify and find an “original” copy of the cited material. If you plan on having substantial digital releases, as an organizational approach you should seriously consider adopting a new digital ‘publication’ release category similar to the traditional Bulletins, Memoirs, Papers, Open Files etc. There is really no difference between the traditional printed publications and a digital publication except that the media is different. As you note, digital only releases should have a file size included in a reference (or media type if that’s appropriate).

I should note that for geoscience maps the “scale” is not just the size of paper you print a map on but it reflects the detail and accuracy of the geoscience information. i.e., you can print a 1:250,000-scale map at 1:50,000-scale but it is still a 1:250,000-scale product as far as the credibility of the geoscience product is concerned. This is a major problem in organizational credibility as some authors attempt to present their work at scales that their fieldwork simply does not support. So, scale should be considered in terms of the quality of data presented not simply the size of the piece of paper it is printed upon.

Maps, reports, databases, emails, programs, GIS data etc, are just scientific products but in digital format versus paper format. All the same rules still apply but with some additional considerations appropriate to the type of digital product. A critical element is an organizational one in that - is the material going to be made available for a time span comparable to traditional print media from the same organization?  Any systematic referencing has to be intelligent enough to avoid the simple problem of changing URL addresses and government department name changes.

My book discusses the concept of digital references and following is the copyrighted introduction:

Referencing Electronic Sources

In general, digital information should be treated similarly to traditional hardcopy products. References should have a title, author(s), date of release or access, and a ‘publishing’ agency, all of which make a traditional reference possible. It is important not to create different reference formats based on different digital media, such as CD-ROM, DVD, tape, FTP, http, etc. These examples are media only, while the referenced information contained on each should adhere to accepted scientific standards. Thus, a useful reference should include all standard reference elements. In addition, it should contain an indication of media type, file size, pages or number of records, and any other information, which characterizes the information and makes it easier to find. Creating unique reference formats for varied digital media is comparable to having different formats for each colour and texture of paper used in traditional publications, which is a ridiculous concept.

Authors should be aware that for electronic sources, some elements may be missing or may need to be translated into elements, which make sense. For example, online authors might only provide login names or aliases; instead of a title, there may only be a file name; the publisher and place of publication might be replaced online by the protocol and address; publication pagination is an element of print media, which has little meaning in electronic, non-linear documents, but file size can be important; and, rather than a publication date, you may only have the date you accessed the information. However, the objective for digital referencing remains exactly the same as for traditional hard copy references – a reader must be able to use a reference to find and use a copy of the work cited.

If electronic publications are simply digital copies of traditional hard-copy publications, they should be referenced exactly as their hard-copy original. As a convenience to readers, such references could also include the digital protocol and address, or other distinguishing information.

Some digital maps, reports and manuscripts follow established content and design conventions for hardcopy geoscience publications, and they may be part of a digital publication series from the originating agency. These can be referenced in a fashion similar to hardcopy counterparts, with the exception of adding an internet website address, and a file size, if appropriate.

In contrast to historical practice for hard-copy products, the creator, the publisher and the agency, which archive or distribute digital data, are now commonly the same. For traditional print media these organizations were usually independent of one another, and libraries and bookstores, not the publisher, commonly archived and distributed the products.

General Content and Format

Electronic information sources should be referenced and cited, using an approach similar to that for traditional print media. Information should contain critical basic elements a reader requires to access the same information and these items should be presented in the following order:
  • authors’ or editors’ last names and initial(s) (may also be a login name or alias);
  • date of document creation, if different from date accessed;
  • full title of the document, capitalizing only the first word and any proper nouns (may only be a file name or equivalent);
  • title of complete work, if part of a collection of documents or manuscripts;
  • name of organization, which publishes and hosts the information, and makes it accessible through the internet; even though this information may not be an obvious part of the document, it is critical to identify the originating agency so that the information can be found even if the protocol and electronic address change;
  • version or file number, or other identifying information if applicable;
  • journal or publication series name, series number plus edition or revision number, if applicable; map scale, physical size;
  • URL protocol and address, access path, or directories: i.e., http, https, gopher, FTP, or discussion lists/newsgroup locators;
  • media type, e.g., diskette, CD-ROM, DVD, tape, if not a website URL.
  • size of file in megabytes; image resolution; file type, e.g., pdf, zip, dwf, ASCII, XML/HTML, etc.;
  • originating software name and version number if appropriate; and,
  • date of access in square brackets [dd/mm/yyyy].
Not all elements will be available for each reference but authors should provide information, as complete as possible.


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