This essay discusses the advantages, disadvantages, and existing policies and guidelines regarding convenience links.
There is currently a lack of consensus about what a convenience link is; however, the term "convenience link" is typically used to indicate a link to a copy of a resource somewhere on the internet, offered in addition to a formal citation to the same resource in its original format. For example, an editor providing a citation to Adam Smith's famous work The Wealth of Nations might choose to include both a citation to a published copy of the work and a link to the work on the internet, as follows:
In that example, the link to the copy of The Wealth of Nations available at Wikisource serves as a convenience to readers who may wish to read the work online rather than in its print form. The printed copy, however, is clearly identified for any user wishing to verify any statements supported by the citation.
A disagreement arises on the question of whether the editor adding the citation actually looked at the original source, or just at the convenience link. Some people may use the term "convenience link" to apply to both situations. Other editors may only consider it a "convenience link" if the editor adding the citation did indeed look at the original source. When the editor adding the citation did not look at the link, it may be called an intermediate or indirect source.
The style of following the print cite with a phrase "available at <link>" is not material, and it is acceptable to surround the title of the work with the link, as long as the print information, such as publisher and year, are provided.
It is important to ensure that the copy being linked is a true copy of the original, without any comments, amendations, edits or changes. When the "convenience link" is hosted by a site that is considered reliable on its own, this is relatively plausible to assume. However, when such a link is hosted on a less reliable site, the linked version should be checked for accuracy against the original, or not linked at all if such verification is not possible.
However, this raises the question of whether the link is to image files of the print edition, which are presumably unchanged, or to renditions into other formats, such as HTML. Many rendered editions make edits, such as by incorporating the errors in an "errata" page of the print edition into the body of the work. It is acceptable to make such minor changes that were made, albeit in a somewhat different form, by the author of the original work. It is also acceptable to correct obvious typographical errors that were made by the typesetter and not by the author. It is also acceptable to clean up images to remove speckle and other artifacts of microfilming or scanning that did not appear in the original print edition and that might obscure the text.
Convenience links have a number of things going for them.
- Particularly in the case of hard to find, but still verifiable sources, such as public court documents, local or older newspapers, or related information, a convenience link permits users to access the original information easily.
- In some cases, the original editor may only have read the "convenience link," rather than the original source. Explicitly identifying the link promotes honesty. (Note, however, that: (a) under such circumstances, editors are actually required to identify any "intermediate sources" upon which they relied, and (b) such intermediate sources must themselves be reliable. See here.)
- If the editors did read the original source, and edit based on that, the reliability of the convenience link is unimportant. However, for the reliability of the convenience link to be unimportant, no edits must be based on it.
- They can save editors a lot of money and time when they do not (again) have to find or buy or borrow the book or article
- Convenience links may not themselves be reliable. In many cases, editors link to self-published sites that would not meet verifiability or reliable source requirements. Although the original source is identified and (must be) verifiable, it may be difficult to find, and the "convenience site" may be itself unreliable, particularly if it is strongly associated with a particular viewpoint. It remains a matter of dispute whether websites with copies of reliable sources are considered reliable unless there is proof or indication otherwise, or the opposite whether websites are considered unreliable unless proven not to be.
- Convenience links may be a form of advertising. If editors are using convenience links to direct traffic to a particular commercial, political, or other site, that may violate Wikipedia guidelines regarding external links and/or "spam".
- Webpages with convenience links may contain partisan or POV comments on reputable sources. In cases where the comments on the reputable source cannot be distinguished from the reputable source itself, the webpage is probably unsuitable as a convenience link. But even if the comments can be clearly distinguished from the reputable source, linking to the webpage may be considered inappropriate by contributors who disagree with the comments.
The first relevant policy to convenience links is Wikipedia's copyright policy. Pursuant to the relevant section of that policy, editors may not link to material that may be a copyright violation without making a reasonable effort to ensure that the material is in the public domain, is published under license, or qualifies as fair use.
As a practical matter, this policy resolves many convenience link arguments. Where a convenience link leads to a republication of a newspaper, book, or other published material, the link should be removed unless there is good reason to believe that the material's publication does not violate copyright. (The original citation, however, can stay unless deficient for other reasons).
- In cases where an editor reads only an "intermediate source" such as an on-line copy of a print publication, the editor should cite the intermediate source, but may also mention the original source. In such a case, the intermediate source must itself be reliable.
- In cases where the editor reads the original source, he or she should cite to the original source, and may, but need not include a convenience link. In this case, the convenience link is not a source.
In either case, the format of the citation should make it clear which source was used as the source of information.
However, the guideline does not clarify whether, in the second case, the intermediate source or "convenience site" must be reliable. Therefore, it is at least arguable that if an editor represents that she has compared the original source and convenience site and found the convenience cited material to be accurate, she may include a link to the convenience site even if it would not itself satisfy the reliable source guideline.
However, where several convenience sites are available to link to the same content, the site selected as the convenience link should always be the one whose general content is most in line with Wikipedia's criteria for reliable sources.
Technically, Wikipedia's guidelines regarding external links are not directly relevant to "convenience links," which are combined with citations and therefore occur in an article's body or reference section. Nevertheless, the guideline's sections relating to "links to be used occasionally" and "links normally to be avoided" may be instructive.