Selective Dissemination of Information

A researcher recently discovered something odd: she couldn’t use “abortion” in a keyword search Popline, a standard database on reproductive health hosted at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins. What the–?

Turns out, it’s now a stop word. Like “a” and “the.” Something you want excluded from a search. What the–?

Turns out, federal funding can’t go to anything that supports abortion, and the database gets funding from USAID, so to keep the database from being stopped itself …

There are workarounds to find the 25,000 or so records in the database that deal with the topic, but … shhhh! We can’t talk about it.

I waited a bit before posting this, thinking it had to be a … I don’t know, a late and not very funny April Fool’s joke. But the joke’s on us.

More at Wired. With an update here.

UPDATE: the other shoe has dropped. Here’s a press release from the Dean of the JH School of Public Health:

Statement Regarding POPLINE Database

I was informed this morning that the word “abortion” was blocked as a search term in the POPLINE family planning database administered by the Bloomberg School’s Center for Communication Programs. POPLINE provides evidence-based information on reproductive health and family planning and is the world’s largest database on these issues.

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.

I could not disagree more strongly with this decision, and I have directed that the POPLINE administrators restore “abortion” as a search term immediately. I will also launch an inquiry to determine why this change occurred.

The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health is dedicated to the advancement and dissemination of knowledge and not its restriction.


Michael J. Klag, MD, MPH
Dean, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

Okaaaaay….. that’s good, but it does seem a not unreasonable response to being told certain information does not belong in a database on reproductive health because it’s against the party line. So – will any more shoes drop? Or should I say sabots…?

Author: Barbara Fister

I'm an academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. Like all librarians at our small, liberal arts institution I am involved in reference, collection development, and shared management of the library. My area of specialization is instruction, with research interests also in media literacy, popular literacy, publishing, and assessment.

6 thoughts on “Selective Dissemination of Information”

  1. Interesting, it seems to have been restored… It didn’t work when I tried searching on “abortion” this morning, but when I tried just now, I got hits (793, which is more than none but I don’t know how many there were before.)

  2. It’s the kind of kerfuffle that builds at Internet-speed. Sounds as if USAID complained about a couple of abortion citations that they thought shouldn’t be in the database (I have no idea why, but they have a record of politicizing reproductive rights issues); someone decided that the easiest way to “protect” related records was to eliminate the easiest way to find them (presumably the way mischievous policy wonks would use), suggesting secret-handshake search terms instead. The cat got out the bag and embarrassed the host organization, which responded very quickly.

    The good news is that it has been restored, and was restored very soon after it hit the blogs.

  3. The Wired blog entry refers to the “quiet decision” to block the search term. Doesn’t it make you wonder what other “quiet decisions” have been made in federal research resources?

  4. According to various news sources, yes, the “abortion” has been lifted as a stop word. but if you are only finding 793 results, then they still have a way to go, since earlier keyword searches reportedly found over 20,000 documents with that word!

  5. I just tried it and got over 26,000 hits. What I’m wondering is – what were the two “advocacy” articles that were the subject of the USAID’s concern and were apparently withdrawn from the database? Where do you draw the line between advocacy, reporting, or research?

    The whole thing is very weird.

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