Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Friday, April 04, 2008

Johns Hopkins censors publicly-funded database

Sarah Lai Stirland, U.S. Funded Health Search Engine Blocks 'Abortion', Wired, April 3, 2008.  (Thanks to Gavin Baker.)  Excerpt:

A U.S. government-funded medical information site that bills itself as the world's largest database on reproductive health has quietly begun to block searches on the word "abortion," concealing nearly 25,000 search results.

Called Popline, the search site is run by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Maryland. It's funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, the federal office in charge of providing foreign aid, including health care funding, to developing nations....

But on Thursday, a search on "abortion" was producing only the message "No records found by latest query." ...

Under a Reagan-era policy revived by President Bush in 2001, USAID denies funding to non-governmental organizations that perform abortions, or that "actively promote abortion as a method of family planning in other nations."

A librarian at the University of California at San Francisco noticed the new censorship on Monday, while carrying out a routine research request on behalf of academics and researchers at the university. The search term had functioned properly as of January.

Puzzled, she contacted the manager of the database, Johns Hopkins' Debbie Dickson, who replied in an April 1st e-mail that the university had recently begun blocking the search term because the database received federal funding.

"We recently made all abortion terms stop words," Dickson wrote in a note to Gloria Won, the UCSF medical center librarian making the inquiry. "As a federally funded project, we decided this was best for now." ...


  • What's stunning is that Johns Hopkins apparently took this step on its own, without waiting for USAID to ask it to do so.  It would have been much better to wait.  We'd have a few more weeks, months, or years of freedom.  And the university could side with the protesting public against a government censor.  Now it is the censor. 
  • It's embarrassing enough to have a public agency censor knowledge about abortion in a country where the Supreme Court has ruled that abortion is a fundamental right.  And it's embarrassing enough to have two administrations try to limit public knowledge about a fundamental right.  But it's more embarrassing for a university to act as the censor.  Does the university believe that searching for knowledge about abortion is "actively promoting" abortion?  Does it believe that searching for knowledge about torture is actively promoting torture? 
  • Finally, if the university waited and forced the agency to act, then we could address the underlying policy, undistracted by the university's eagerness to carry it out.  Abortion and its active promotion are lawful in the US, and the USAID mission should reflect that.  But in any case, even for users who actively oppose abortion and its promotion, searching for knowledge should be lawful.  Don't abortion opponents ever want to learn something about the practice?  Or do they want to guarantee that their public policy positions are uninformed?

Update.  That was fast.  Michael Klag, Dean of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, has reversed the decision.  (Thanks to Catherine Rampell.)  From Klag's public statement (April 4, 2008):

...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.

USAID may disregard the freedom of inquiry at Johns Hopkins, as it has in the past.  Or it may defund the POPLINE database.  But no matter what it does, Johns Hopkins has its own mission to follow.  Kudos to Dean Klag for remembering.

Update.  It appears that USAID did contact the university prior to the act of censorship.  According to Robert Pear in the April 5 New York Times,

[Timothy M. Parsons, a spokesman for Johns Hopkins] said the development agency [USAID] had expressed concern after finding “two articles about abortion advocacy” in the database. The articles, he said, did not fit database criteria and were removed.

Nevertheless, there's no evidence that USAID asked the university to censor searches.

Update. Another bit of news from the Library Journal Academic Newswire for April 8, 2008:

A spokesperson for USAID, Sandra Johnson, told reporters...that administrators at Hopkins had "misunderstood" the agency's request [to remove two articles from the database], however, and said the agency was "glad" the search function was being restored.