This essay was first published on Dark Gray Matters in November 2021. It is part of the science style guide series.


Go to Wikipedia and start reading an article on some topic you don’t know much about. For example, the umami taste.

Chances are that by the end of the first few paragraph, you will have clicked on several links, either because they referred to terms you didn’t know (glutamateinosine monophosphate), or because you were curious (what does Wikipedia have to say about the five basic tastes?). Now these links might be open in new tabs for you to check later. Or maybe you’ve already given up reading the original umami article, and are now exploring some new rabbit hole (e.g. the Scoville scale of spiciness).

Wikipedia is a great resource for many reasons, but one of them is this constant hyperlinking to other relevant Wikipedia articles. This has a major advantage: it allows the reader to create their own reading experience. Advanced readers on some topic can keep reading without having to go through the basics they already know. Beginner readers can look up technical terms easily. Wikipedia is a choose-your-own-adventure book, where you can wander according to your own character level.

Links are even an answer to some degree to the four-way tradeoff I wrote about here. It’s difficult to write something that is clear, brief, complex, and information-rich. But Wikipedia articles come closer to the golden middle, and that’s thanks to links. With no need to explain every difficult term directly in the text, articles can be more brief without sacrificing clarity. By packaging complex information in other articles, and showing only the link, Wikipedia articles can contain more complexity and richness of information.

(The reason it doesn’t falsify my four-way tradeoff theory is that Wikipedia as a whole cannot be called succinct. To understand a topic well, you still have to read a lot of articles. But Wikipedia packages this information in relatively brief articles. In other words, information architecture is a pretty good solution to the tradeoff.)

Links make matters easier to readers, but they also help writers. You don’t have to do as much guessing about what your audience knows; your audience will decide for themselves. And you can just reuse existing information written by others.

This suggests that our two principles are satisfied:

  • Minimum reading friction: links give agency to readers. They make it easier to look up complex terms (which readers will tend to google anyway).
  • Low-hanging fruit: adding links to existing public resources like Wikipedia, other encyclopedias, or open-access papers, is an easy thing to do for a writer.

Given all of the above, we’d expect scientific papers — which are almost always at the frontier of the tradeoff, trying to cram a lot of complex information within a word limit without being too difficult to read — to use hyperlinks heavily. Right?

Nope. They rarely do. At most they include citations that link to the reference section, which may include a link to the original paper, which may or may not be openly accessible to you, and which may or may not be a 10-page difficult read in which the explanation you seek is buried in page three of the discussion with no hint to tell you where to look. And they definitely never include links to Wikipedia or anything like it.

Why is that? I’m guessing part of the explanation is the high importance of those citations. It is considered vital to put your work in relation to existing literature, so scientists have an incentive to reference as many relevant papers as they can, and no incentive to link to anything else. The respectability of the sources comes into play; Wikipedia isn’t a reputable source (it can be edited by anyone! It’s not peer-reviewed!!), nor are a lot of the other websites you could link to. So they tend to be avoided.

Then there’s the requirements of proper information management. References must be written in standard format. So if for some reason you do need to link to a website, then you’ll have to use a format like:

“Questions and Answers on Monosodium glutamate (MSG)”. Silver Spring, Maryland: United States Food and Drug Administration. 19 November 2012. Retrieved 19 February 2017.

There are good reasons to this formalism. But it also means that adding any link to a paper requires some work. As a result, I suspect it leads to less hyperlinking in science papers than would be useful to readers.

If you’ve ever read a scientific paper, it’s likely that you have googled complicated terms and looked up Wikipedia articles to help you. Scientists shouldn’t pretend that this isn’t happening. They should not hesitate to add link to resources like Wikipedia, blogs, Twitter threads, and other papers, in order to guide readers and reduce friction.

Drawbacks

There are a few drawbacks to hyperlinked text. None of them invalidate the idea that links should be used more, but we should keep them in mind.

One drawback is that links can be distracting. A barrage of links in a paragraph might be somewhat annoying to read. (Although links also have the benefit of providing novelty to text — even a simple thing like the color of a hyperlink can be useful to make a piece of writing less boring.) And having to open links may drive readers away from the original paper, and require some more effort on their part as opposed to a piece written in a way that beginners don’t need to look up extra information.

Another major drawback is link rot. A webpage may stop existing at any moment, and then your link becomes useless. Also, Wikipedia articles can change and stop fulfilling their original purpose. (Although in practice Wikipedia contributors are mindful of that and use redirections a lot.) One way to circumvent this is to link to archived pages, such as the Wayback Machine.

And of course, links don’t work offline. But my contention is that fewer and fewer people are reading papers in print or without internet access. We shouldn’t make it impossible for these modes of reading to happen, but it’s time we make full use of the web’s possibilities to improve science publishing.

Recommendations

  • Do not hesitate to add links to various resources, including encyclopedias, your own content (whether formally published or not), etc.
  • Try to find the correct balance between too few and too many links.
    • Your paper should be readable without clicking any links, so do explain the crucial parts directly in the text.
    • Too many links can be distracting, so choose carefully when to add one.
  • Link to archived webpages when possible.
  • Links shouldn’t replace formal citations, but it’s good practice to pair citations with direct links to make it easier to look up the reference.