Links Add Value to On-Line Reading and Medical Blog Content

This post is intended mainly for medical bloggers, but it has applications elsewhere. It’s about links and uniform resource locators (URLs), terms that I didn’t fully appreciate until the last year or so. That’s because like most of my colleagues and readers, I grew up reading printed books, newspapers and magazines. Now, perhaps as much as 90 percent of the non-fiction I read is on-line.

The Web has a lot of advantages for readers – you can see multimedia presentations, or double-click to enlarge a graph of interest. What I think is best, though, is the third dimension of information that’s sometimes provided: supportive links.

Hyperlinks, which come as urls embedded in on-line text, provide immediate access to relevant ideas and sources. For example, any reader here should be aware that what prompted this mini-essay was a recent piece on the med-blog 33 Charts in which the author, Dr. Bryan Vartabedian, suggested that link over-use can detract from the reader’s experience. As he indicates, appropriately, his post was prompted by Phil Baumann, who wrote on the value of links, particularly for the purpose of author attribution.

I suppose that excessive links might distract a reader or might even be self-serving, especially if they lead to content for which the author has some ulterior motive to connect, such as a website where my book is for sale (a strictly theoretical concern, for now). Turns out that bloggers have debated the link-bait problem for years; some suggest we insert links to acquire Google Juice, i.e. connections that support search engine optimization (SEO) and blog rankings.

But I don’t care about that, at least not primarily. Rather, an author’s responsibility to credit someone whose ideas influenced her work overrides other concerns. Consider this: if at, an academic conference a lecturer draws upon another researcher’s data but doesn’t mention that person, for fear of seeming like a brown-noser or for not wanting to draw her listeners’ attention to that investigator’s work. The presentation would be considered sloppy, at best, and might border on plagiarism. Another “reason” for omission is laziness; it takes work to find an on-line reference or supporting data to justify a point you’re making. You might not remember exactly where or when you heard of an idea, so you just spell it out in a post and, over time, might even forget that you were influenced by another’s post, full-length article or even a book you read years ago.

From the reader’s perspective, links enhance an article’s utility by providing related articles and data. With appropriate connections, a reader can easily take at look and judge for herself what she thinks of whatever it is you’re talking about in a blog post. Take a real example, for instance: if I refer to the number of individuals in the U.S. who are diagnosed with cancer of the brain and nervous system, you could click and check that the National Cancer Institute estimates that would be around 22,000 for 2010. Without the link, you’d just have to take my word for it.

So I wish bloggers, and medical bloggers in particular, would provide more links to support what they write. Otherwise, what we say amounts to “I think X,” and nothing more.

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  • Excellent post about the advantage of online communication versus offline: convenient access to an author’s supporting documentation. As you point out, adding hyperlinks can be time-consuming but they are just as important as providing citations in an offline publication. I often find an author’s citations and supporting documentation as useful as the original article. Bookmarking tools like Delicious and Diigo make it especially easy to save the original article as well as links.

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