Tag Archives: POPLINE

Further thoughts on the POPLINE debacle: what went right?

Rachel Walden’s follow-up post on POPLINE has given me a kick in the pants to get moving on my own follow-up post. (Yes, the one that I alluded to months ago…)

I’ve been thinking about the POPLINE debacle. While Rachel rightly points out that all is not perfectly resolved, and we await more answers, in general I’ve been wondering about what went so darned right.

Yes,I know I’ve been one of many ranting about what went wrong – i.e. USAID anti-abortion policies interfering with access to information – but what went right is a different question all together. Considering the positive is something I don’t get to ponder a lot on this blog, so indulge me here.

To recap, for anyone not following along in April: A librarian noticed that abortion was no longer a searchable term in the database and sent out an email about it. The email was passed along on various health librarian and feminist listservs and public outcry was raised. Who-knows-how-many of us emailed the POPLINE admins and blogged it with outrage, and within two days the dean of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health issued a public statement assuring the world that this would be rectified and investigated.

Wow.

So…as I asked before, what went right here? Why were we successful in calling attention to this issue, and getting it addressed so swiftly? Why did this work fairly well, when in comparison the Canadian Health Network was shut down after months of protest by health librarians, a petition, multiple high-profile newspaper articles, and various other media attention? I’ve been pondering this, trying to figure out what we can do in the future to make our information resources more like POPLINE and less like the CHN, and these are the elements that I’ve come up with thus far:

  • US vs. Canada: The US is generally more political & inflammatory, and Canadian librarians will jump on a US database issue, while 99% of the US generally forget that Canada exists or is within the scope of the ALA
  • POPLINE is housed at/maintained by a single institution with important people who could be embarrassed at the top of the chain of command vs. the CHN, which was, as I understand it, purposively built on a distributed model
  • Specific interest vs. general resource: It’s hard to argue than another resource could easily replace POPLINE, as there aren’t really other reproductive health focused databases like it (are there?), and – however their scope or quality (attirbutes understood by librarians but not everyone) may vary – there are other websites that aim to be broad consumer health resources. It may also be significant that POPLINE is not really for everyday use of the general public, but more for scholars and health professionals.
  • The scope of POPLINE, while specifically focused, had broad interdisciplinary appeal (while reproductive rights info access was damaged by CHN removal, as shown in my previous “ABC” post, POPLINE is obviously related to reproductive rights, and thus feminists signed on the campaign en masse: POPLINE was discussed on WMST-L, while the CHN never was)

I know there are more differences that may have been important in determining how things went down. Feel free to tell me what I am missing. My mind is now spinning on how future projects can be built in a way that helps a threat play out in a POPLINE manner, not a CHN one.

-Greyson

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POPLINE kerfuffle follow-up

The good news of the day is that Michael J. Klag, MD, MPH, Dean of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health has released a “Statement Regarding POPLINE Database.”

In the statement he says he was just informed this morning about the blocking of searches for abortion in POPLINE, and that he “could not disagree more strongly with this decision.”

His explanation for what happened is a bit puzzling:

USAID, which funds POPLINE, found two items in the database related to abortion that did not fit POPLINE criteria. The agency then made an inquiry to POPLINE administrators. Following this inquiry, the POPLINE administrators at the Center for Communication Programs made the decision to restrict abortion as a search term.

Don’t you wonder what those items were?  (Also, how exactly the “inquiry” was made?)

Interesting.  Comments on Rachel Walden’s blog are tracking the return of records.

Wired has an article discussing the stopword decision and a bit on the Mexico City Policy as background here.  In that article, ALA president Loriene Roy states her concerns over the policy:

“Any federal policy or rule that requires or encourages information providers to block access  to scientific information because of partisan or religious bias is censorship,” she said. “Such policies promote idealogy over science and only serve to deny researchers, students and individuals on all sides of the issue access to accurate scientific information.”

I love it when my reproductive health, social justice, and librarianship worlds come together.  Librarian/Information kindred should absolutely be up in arms about the Mexico City Policy.  But I never saw any library affinity groups at any of those “pro-choice” Marches on Washington (maybe they were there, but in my pre-librarian life they were not apparent to me).  This should change.   I love that the ALA president is connecting reproductive rights and intellectual freedom.  Can we keep doing this, always, please?

Back on POPLINE in particular, hooray for everyone who wrote, called, and spread the word about this mess.  As my partner said when I told her about Dean Klag’s statement today, “Wow.  Librarians do rock.”

Now, why did this making a fuss work pretty well with POPLINE and not so well with the CHN?

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Filed under censorship, government, Health, Intellectual freedom, Other blogs, The Profession

POPLINE and government barriers to information on “controversial” topics

I saw it first at Rachel’s blog, but you may have seen it any number of places by now:

Making the rounds of librarian emails, listservs and blogs in the past day or so is the news that POPLINE, “the world’s largest database on reproductive health, containing citations with abstracts to scientific articles, reports, books, and unpublished reports in the field of population, family planning, and related health issues,” has made abortion (and all abortion related terms) a stopword.

Yes, a stopword, like: a, an & the.

Because “abortion” is semantically empty, just like “the,” right?

According to the “About” page, “POPLINE is maintained by the INFO Project at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health/Center for Communication Programs and is funded by the United States Agency for International Development. (USAID).”

Presumably, if a democrat is elected president in the US in November, the Mexico City Policy (scroll down to the last in the list) will once more flip back “off” and abortion will no longer be a dirty word for USAID-funded folk anymore.

Can we wait for that, though?

In the immediate, let’s join in the chorus leaning on POPLINE to deal with this asap (Comment form here: http://db.jhuccp.org/ics-wpd/popweb/contact.html).

In the longer term, can we talk about what seems to be happening right now in terms of government clamping down on access to controversial health issue information? Bush II reinstated the Mexico City Policy in January 2001. Why is POPLINE being altered in April 2008?

I mean, maybe I’m putting on the tinfoil hat here, but, in light of my previous post about searching for public health sources on the myth of an abortion/breast cancer link, it kind of spooks me that right when the CHN is shut down, POPLINE also effectively blocks access to abortion information. (Yes, we library-heads can bypass the search box by using the subject hyperlinks in the records, but you can’t get a very sophisticated search going without limiting it beyond “abortion” – and to do that you need to use the text boxes.  Or to open up IE and browse to the various keywords you want to combine, copying/pasting them in and combining with boolean operators.  Still somewhat limiting, although I was actually able to combine abortion and breast cancer this way and get only 211 records.)

Oh, and don’t forget that, nearly simultaneously, Bill C-484 – the so-called “Unborn Victims of Violence Act” – surprised many of us by actually passing a second reading in the Canadian House of Commons (Requisite petition link: http://www.gopetition.com/petitions/oppose-bill-c-484.html).

Coincidence? I’m not saying this is all a big woo-woo coordinated conspiracy. But what I am saying is we should be careful not to view the POPLINE kerfuffle as an isolated incident, but as a high-profile indicator of our current climate, in which governments are converting relatively balanced comprehensive health information sources into platforms from which to promote and advance partisan agendas, a la the new Healthy Canadians website.

-Greyson

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