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I am writing a master's thesis in engineering. It is quite literature-heavy, and I'm using Zotero with BibTeX to manage my references. For the most part, I use Zotero's browser extension to create Zotero entries, but when necessary (e.g. for PDFs that were only published on a university server), I also create some from scratch. Sometimes, I want to cite websites of software tools without a publication. I could gather as much information as possible from those websites, but since these references are really only made in passing, I find that giving the reader a URL suffices. Also, my sources list is quite long already, so I try to avoid going out of my way to add extra references just for the sake of mentioning a single name. So, a URL it is.

What is and what ought be the best practice to include such a naked URL into a master's thesis, or even a research paper? There are essentially three possible ways to do this:

  1. Footnote with the link (e.g. using \url{ } from hyperref): ugly, but visible to people who print the work on physical paper -- and lose the digital version, so that the only way to visit the URL is copying it letter by letter manually. Edit: for non-homepages, I am using archive.org to prevent link rot, which is academically good, but the URLs are ridiculously unaesthetic.
  2. Embedded hyperlink in the text (with an unobtrusive colour to indicate the text is clickable). Looks neat, but not accessible in print. This is what I'm currently doing.
  3. Have a list of raw URLs as a subsection of my sources list, and use some LaTeX magic to annotate and jump to the correct link from the text.

Worth mentioning: our department has 1. no standard citation style and 2. stopped requiring physical thesis prints since 2020, hence why 1. I have the freedom to choose the citation style and 2. I am embracing hyperlinks currently. My thesis is in NLP, so my own style most closely resembles that of the ACL (see this paper as an example), but this is not a hard constraint.

I am asking for an ought as well because of this freedom. If the standard is (1), but there are better arguments for (2), then I prefer (2).


Note: I am not asking how to cite a website. As explained above, I've made up my mind on this: I want to only cite a URL, not have a whole BibTeX entry for it. The question is how/where to do the citation.

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    Why not just make a footnote with an active URL ...? Commented Apr 30, 2023 at 19:21
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    Are the URLs themselves particularly long or ugly? If not, why do you find the url solution so ugly?
    – Anyon
    Commented Apr 30, 2023 at 19:30
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    @Anyon Yes, some of the URLs are definitely long (e.g. for software published at a subdomain of a subdomain of a university website nested 5 directories deep in a professor's personal website). Any URL is arguably ugly in any font, partly because it is not natural language, partly because it stands out as meaningless not-supposed-to-be-read content. They stand out especially when in a footnote, since the footnote shortens the text on a page and attracts attention. I am also using archive.org to ensure my links don't rot when this is important, and those URLs are awfully long.
    – Mew
    Commented Apr 30, 2023 at 20:49
  • @Mew Use the original url as the link text, but hyperlink the archive.org version. Also add the date of when you accessed/saved the page. You might even link both the original page and the archive.org version - most readers will be interested in visiting the current page as well.
    – Bergi
    Commented May 1, 2023 at 16:09
  • @AzorAhai-him- it's mentioned that they're citations, and if the citation style puts them at the end, the footnote is then separated from the rest of the citation
    – Chris H
    Commented May 2, 2023 at 9:50

4 Answers 4

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I would put real links in an appendix, with refs that jump there in the online version but are simply text in the hard copy. That's [xxx] or [n] in the body and [\url{...}] in the appendix. That does not call for much LaTeX magic. Ask at tex SE for help if you need it.

Be sure to annotate links with a "last visited" date.

The ability to jump back to the text after viewing a reference in the appendix would be nice. That does call for a little magic.

I find footnotes distracting. Avoid them unless your discipline embraces them.

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    @Mew: I also recommend saving the pages at the Internet Archive by using the "Save Page Now" feature here. You probably don't need to mention this in your thesis aside (if you which) making a comment about it in the introduction, but having the pages available many years from now might be of use (possibly historical). If nothing else, you'll lessen the effect of Murphy's Law, which in your case will be that for some reason 20+ years from now you'll want to look at one of those pages and it will no longer be available. Commented Apr 30, 2023 at 20:02
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    @DaveLRenfro Ah yes, I forgot to mention that I am already using archive.org for non-homepages indeed. Speaking of ugly URLs...
    – Mew
    Commented Apr 30, 2023 at 20:54
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Ultimately, this question can only be answered by your future reader(s), which presumably will be your parents and the supervising professor (and maybe a committee), with an off-chance of others if you wrote a high impact thesis. I would not worry about your parents, but I would worry about your supervisor and your MS committee. This will also depend on whether they like to use an electronic copy or a printed one. (I prefer a printed one because it is easier to annotate.)

Citations in academic texts are about honesty (attributing other's results to them) and traceability. In the printed world, it was customary to cite editions and pages in editions so that a reader could follow up on the citation. This way, I (the reader) can look-up your (the author) resource and check whether you used it correctly, not so much to police you but to assure myself that you applied the resource correctly or represented the cited author's position correctly.

Electronic resources introduced an element of uncertainty as resources could vanish or move overnight or even be changed. The academic community dealt with this problem by using analogy. So, we used these "retrieved on a certain date" and we might now be starting to use the internet-archive to give more permanence to these resources.

Any citation-style that deals with these additional problems of electronic resources is fine in my opinion and would be judged by aesthetic criteria. But my opinion does not matter all that much to you.

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One option you could consider is using endnotes instead of footnotes. This would avoid shortening the text on the page and diverting reader attention, while preserving the URLs for readers of printouts. It is essentially the same idea as using an appendix for the URLs, but more granular.

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  • Please don't. Endnotes are always a pain on the reader. Commented May 1, 2023 at 4:43
  • @curiousdannii I'm curious: can you elaborate?
    – Mew
    Commented May 1, 2023 at 11:16
  • @Mew Having to flip pages to read endnotes is super annoying. I've never heard anyone speak favourably of them. Commented May 1, 2023 at 12:08
  • @curiousdannii Are you speaking from the POV of someone reading on physical paper? If yes, then I'm assuming you also wouldn't favour embedded hyperlinks nor endnotes with backreferences. If no, backrefs could alleviate the problem. I do have to concede that I detest IEEE citations; not sure what I think about them when used solely for URLs.
    – Mew
    Commented May 1, 2023 at 12:27
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    @curiousdannii Given that you haven't expressed a similar dislike of flipping through the pages to get to an appendix for the URLs or option 3 in the OP, I have to wonder: are you primarily worried about the moving of other, non-URL would-be footnotes? If so, you can of course use footnotes and endnotes in the same document. You can also use a customized numbering of the endnotes to, e.g. URL1, URL2, etc., to signal clearly to the reader what type of information they would be flipping to.
    – Anyon
    Commented May 1, 2023 at 12:43
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How to present links

My personal favourite technique for displaying hyperlinks is to use hyperref with options:

\hypersetup{%
colorlinks=false,% hyperlinks will be black
linkbordercolor=red,% hyperlink borders will be red
pdfborderstyle={/S/U/W 1}% border style will be underline of width 1pt
}

This produces a single coloured underline which is not visible in print. This avoids the typical ugly boxes. I recommend using different colours for links within the document and links to websites. Use a monospaced font for URLs!

Where to put links

I cannot see a compelling reason not to treat these URLs as you would any other reference. This is the simple and conventional approach. You say your reference list is already long---so a few more entries wouldn't make much difference. There are other techniques available to deal with a long reference list such as having a separate list for each section, using author-date referencing to reduce the need for the reader to visit the reference list, or otherwise splitting references into several lists.

Additionally, if you use the reference list rather than an inline URL, you would have the space to include two URLs---one being the official URL and the other being the archive.org URL. I find it odd to only provide the archive.org URL if the website is still active.

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  • I use almost the opposite options - lose the ugly border/underline, and (optionally) set the link text colour to dark blue (blue being traditional for links, but dark so it prints clearly B&W). Where possible, I use the DOI link rather than the URL.
    – Chris H
    Commented May 2, 2023 at 9:54
  • "I find it odd to only provide the archive.org URL if the website is still active." I concur with this and have been thinking the same thing. If I'm critiquing what's currently being said on a website, then arguably the case is stronger if the reader can verify it for themselves that it is still an issue to this day. "using author-date referencing to reduce the need for the reader to visit the reference list" I am already doing that, cfr. the ACL style. The problem for URLs is that there often is no clear author nor year of publishing, and even if so, that's not what (author, year) is for.
    – Mew
    Commented May 2, 2023 at 13:20
  • @Mew Unfortunately I don't believe it is possible to have a 100 % consistent approach because, as you point out, some websites have the author and year and some do not. The best you can do is pick a style and follow it. I believe the usual solution for author-date is author=name of website and year=year of access. If you reference specific pages on a website you can add the title of the page to the reference e.g. (How Stuff Works, 2023, "How does a carburettor work?") You can define a macro that does this for biblatex, for example.
    – LittleJohn
    Commented May 2, 2023 at 23:15

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