Thursday, April 3, 2008

The number you have dialed is no longer in service: Intentional disconnection at POPLINE?

I'll admit I joined a major listserv in my field solely because of the fallout from last week's ruckus regarding the PhD student from Harvard, and was dismayed by some of the comments made there by my colleagues regarding the situation. I initially wanted to write further about the matter, but David Rothman & The Krafty Librarian have covered additional perspectives well. I'm still mulling over how to identify relevant national, regional and community medical blogs and the roles medical librarians can serve in both participation and outreach on them.

However, I've watched the listserv traffic with alarm today at what appears to be search term censorship at POPLINE, a federally-funded search engine operated at Johns Hopkins that bills itself as "the world's largest database on reproductive health."

There's just one (known, what else might there be?) small problem: a librarian conducting a query earlier this week found fewer records than previous searches. For a comprehensive database, that means something about the way the database is organized/indexed has changed when nothing else with the query has or there's some type of problem.

You can see the problematic indexing in action yourself: enter abortion in the subject box, click search and voila... nothing. Now try entering abortion in the subject box, then clicking browse index, which brings a popup box (Inmagic, blech! I'm having library school dbase programming flashbacks!) Enter abortion again there, then click the Go to button, and you'll pull up the term with almost 25,000 records. Next, click paste and you'll notice the formatting in the main search box changes to ="Abortion" Click the search button again, and all of the records display.

The reason from Johns Hopkins for this convoluted search nonsense at the world's largest database on reproductive health appears so incredulous that I'm still suspicious that there is a horrible April Fool's Day joke being played here:

Yes we did make a change in POPLINE. We recently made all abortion
terms stop words. As a federally funded project, we decided this was
best for now.
, according to an email forward supposedly originating from Debbie Dickson on April 1st.

Stepping outside our library jargon, stop words are terms like a, and, the: most search engines don't look for these terms unless a search is specifically constructed to include them because they aren't relevant to the information being sought.

No one can find a way to explain to me how the term abortion, which includes not just the major subject but areas like spontaneous abortion = miscarriage, is not relevant to a search of a reproductive health database, and I will not stand for it as a newly minted librarian and former Project Censored student reviewer. If it starts and succeeds with POPLINE, who is to say MedlinePlus isn't next as a federally funded agency?

This is currently on the front page of Wired with a link to their listing in the Privacy, Security, Politics & Crime section.

I am expressing my dismay to Johns Hopkins regarding this decision and hope that you will as well.


deadrose said...

That is truly horrifying. Ridiculous that a medical search engine should have to block a term that refers to so many more things than 'how to get an elective abortion'.

It's like the censorhip software that blocks breast cancer sites because of the word 'breast' - but worse because it's supposed to be a medical information database.

I weep for this country.

The Eagle Dawg said...

Thanks for the input, deadrose. I am still just floored and in disbelief regarding this happening in the first place and the initial apparent explanation. Thank goodness that librarian not only questioned the change, but then made it public.

I discovered a gradual increase in search results just before 11 am Pacific today, and the Dean of Johns Hopkins' School of Public Health has ordered restoration.

The fact is that censorship always defeats its own purpose, for it creates, in the end, the kind of society that is incapable of exercising real discretion. ~Henry Steele Commager