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POPLINE Problem Not Entirely Resolved

May 27, 2008

In early April, the government-funded reproductive health database, POPLINE, could no longer be searched for abortion topics because of its ties to the USAID (of Global Gag Rule Fame). Essentially, the USAID folks can’t give money to agencies who even ta Just two days later, and after considerable protest from librarians, feminists, and reproductive health activists, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health (where the database is managed) issued a statement explaining that the blocking of access to articles that related to abortion was a mistake and pledging to both restore the search and fully investigate the situation.

As a librarian, however, I was not entirely satisfied by the response from Johns Hopkins, because the criteria for omission from the database are not clear (see my post referencing NPR below for further details), and USAID’s influence on the database contents is not readily apparent to users.

Like any good advocate and concerned citizen, I sent letters – to the head of Johns Hopkins public health who issued the search restoration statement, copied to their PR guy and later to the database people themselves. Sent in mid-April, these communications have received no response whatsoever. I was initially patient, recognizing that they likely had a flood of mail to sort through stemming from the controversy. I waited. And then I sent another letter. Today, I would like to document that nothing has seemingly been done about these larger issues, and share with you my letter. Yes, it’s long, but I want to share my concerns in hopes that others will take notice.

I would like to sincerely thank you for your swift and decisive action with regards to the recent POPLINE “abortion” search restoration. As a medical librarian who also writes about women’s and reproductive health issues, I was very disturbed by the unannounced temporary decision to limit access to these citations, and appreciate your response on the matter.

However, following up on your April 8th statement, I remain concerned that it is not clear to POPLINE users what is being omitted from the database and under what specific criteria, given the lack of transparency at the time of the previous incident. I understand that USAID is prohibited from funding agencies which provide or promote abortion, but believe it should be more clearly outlined how this restriction applies to simply providing citations in our “connection to the world’s reproductive health literature,” given that it is not obvious on the POPLINE site and most individuals associate this policy with funding of global reproductive health agencies rather than with information access in the United States.

Although there is an “About” page for POPLINE, it does not clearly define this restriction. Many commonly used databases have clear statements of which publications are included and what criteria specific items must meet for inclusion, and I would urge you to have this type of policy statement added to the POPLINE website. Others who have not so closely followed this controversy and future users may simply have no idea that they are not searching a truly comprehensive and unfettered database of reproductive health publications absent a clear declaration of this policy. Unannounced, quiet changes such as the recent blocking of “abortion” searches make it extremely difficult for users to view the database as a reliable resource, especially given the lack of a clear set of inclusion criteria.

Based on my own use of the database, it is presently unclear why some specific items are excluded while others remain in POPLINE. For example, I found records for numerous other publications that discuss global access to safe abortion as an important public health and women’s rights issue, such as several items from 2002 issue of Reproductive Health Matters which the editorial describes thusly: “These papers are by women’s health advocates, medical professionals, researchers and others working for safe, legal abortion in their countries. These papers advocate safe abortion as a public health goal and legal abortion as a woman’s right, including for marginalised populations such as refugee women.” Based on this, it is not clear to me or to other users that any existing policy is being clearly and consistently followed, further limiting the reliability of the resource.

Your April 8 statement indicates that policies are in place, as you stated, “Other measures are available to us for ensuring that items in the POPLINE database meets USAID guidelines.” Likewise, spokesperson Tim Parsons (copied on this message) was quoted in the Johns Hopkins News-Letter as stating, “We have an agreement with USAID to manage the POPLINE database, and there are agreements about what goes in and what should not be there.” I urge you to ask that these “measures” be set down in a clearly defined and followed policy to be made available to POPLINE users.

Finally, although I realize it may not be possible at present, I urge you to consider re-evaluating the funding arrangement for POPLINE. Again, as a librarian and tax-payer, I believe it is critically important that our citizenry have unfettered access to information that is not hindered, quietly or explicitly, by political agendas.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Related Previous Posts:
Why is a Government-Funded Reproductive Health Database Blocking Users from Searching for Abortion Articles? [April 2, 2008]
Access to Abortion Search to be Restored in POPLINE; Johns Hopkins Releases Statement [April 4, 2008]
Shameless Self-Promotion – Baltimore Sun Covers POPLINE Controversy [April 6, 2008]
NPR Uncovers More Info on POPLINE Controversy [April 9, 2008]

4 Comments leave one →
  1. May 28, 2008 3:17 am

    You deserve a reply to that well written letter, no doubt you have them thinking, therefore the reason for delayed response. This is where the problem lies, so much concealed from those who wish to be in the know. The more we are aware of what is going on regardless of it being related to abortion or not – will help simplify matters that either confuse us or have us find hard to understand.

  2. May 28, 2008 9:17 am

    Excellent letter, and thank you for fighting the good fight.


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