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I do understand that citations should be as precise as possible (including e.g. edition of a book or a page number), so that ideally, the reader can find the information exactly as I found it when writing.

I also understand that the problem with citing webpages is that they can change. But how does including the date when I accessed the page help anything? The reader still won't be able to read the same version I did (unless the page includes history, which is very rare). And comparing the accessed date with the current date isn't very helpful either: some webpages change multiple times per day, some aren't modified for years.

Or is the accessed date useful for some other purpose?

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The reader still won't be able to read the same version I didarchive.org/web/web.php –  JeffE Jan 4 '13 at 17:41
@JeffE That works only on old pages (several months old). And not all pages are archived there. –  svick Jan 4 '13 at 18:04

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I am not aware of any published accounts of how style rules are developed. If you really want to know why a particular rule was developed, you need to asked them directly. That said, there are a number of different styles for dealing with electronic materials and these styles are changing:

  • MLA: You always need the date of access for electronic resources.
  • APA: You rarely use the date of retrieval, although in previous versions (APA 5) you always did
  • CMS: You never need the date of access/retrieval. I am not sure if you ever did in earlier versions.
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A URL does not refer to content, it is only an address. Since you are making a claim about what was written at that address, you must associate a date with it, or it is meaningless.

If you do such a thing, you should also save the content, in case it is not recoverable and you want to refer to it again or support it further.

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So you're saying it's important to uniquely identify what I was reading and it doesn't matter whether anyone else will be able to read it too? –  svick Jan 4 '13 at 18:35
Not that access doesn't matter, just that uniqueness does. –  L. Amber Wilcox-O'Hearn Jan 4 '13 at 18:39

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