Shortened URLs in APA Style References

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Shortened URLs in APA Style References

One change in our guidelines for references sparked a discussion on Twitter, so we thought we would use this blog post to clarify and discuss. The guidance in Section 9.36 about shortened URLs is (a) optional and (b) applicable only to references that include a long or complex URL. Because shortened URLs are not guaranteed to last, they may be most appropriate for short-lived works like student papers rather than for published works.

The guidance in question reads as follows: 

Section 9.36

When a DOI or URL is long or complex, you may use shortDOIs or shortened URLs if desired. Use the shortDOI service provided by the International DOI Foundation (http://shortdoi.org/) to create shortDOIs. A work can have only one DOI and only one shortDOI; the shortDOI service will either produce a new shortDOI for a work that has never had one or retrieve an existing shortDOI.

Some websites provide their own branded shortened URLs, and independent URL shortening services are available as well. Any shortened URL is acceptable in a reference as long as you check the link to ensure that it takes you to the correct location. See Examples 4 and 18 in Chapter 10 for a shortDOI and a shortened URL, respectively, used in a reference.

Insights Into the Guidance

There are three important things to note:

  1. When a work has a DOI, the DOI should always be used instead of a URL (see Section 9.34).
  2. When a work has no DOI, the URL is not needed if you read the work in print or accessed it via a database (as many students and researchers do for journal articles and book chapters); see Section 9.30 for more details.
  3. When a reference does include a URL (e.g., typically online-only sources such as tweets), the full URL is usually fine (as shown in many examples in Chapter 10).

Section 9.36 notes that for long and complex URLs, when a shortened version would be more readable and make the reference shorter, a shortened URL is an option. In particular, we envisioned shortened URLs being used by students writing papers for their courses, where the lifespan of the paper is limited. The shortened URL a student creates for a reference in a paper due imminently is very likely to work for the period of time needed by that student and the instructor.

For works that will have a longer lifespan, authors may want to include in the reference the full URL, even if it is a very long URL. Journal editors may also want to stipulate in their manuscript submission guidelines whether they accept short URLs in references.

If you choose to use a short URL, it may be best to stick with well-known services (e.g., bitly, perma.cc) or the short URL that is provided by the site of the long URL (e.g., Amazon provides amzn.com links for its URLs). Those sites are likely to continue functioning for some time, though there are of course no guarantees. Google, for example, did provide shortened URLs, and although they have stopped offering that service, they state that for shortened URLs already created, “all links will continue to redirect to the intended destination.”

But What if a Shortened URL Stops Working?

We understand that shortened URLs pose a higher risk of not working over time versus full URLs. For those readers who have asked us over the years why we need so much “extra” information in a reference—when a URL theoretically takes you right where you need to be—this dreaded link rot is one reason why. The additional content included in APA Style references makes it possible to still research and find the correct online source for the work.

Authors should use their best judgment on whether to include shortened URLs, and they must consider the wishes of their editors or instructors, as the case may be.

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