Political Interference in Scientific Database

There are few things that raise my ire like political interference in science. Here’s a doozy for you.

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database on reproductive health, containing citations with abstracts to scientific articles, reports, books, and unpublished reports in the field of population, family planning, and related health issues”, is funded by USAID.

I received a couple of e-mails today from various listserv subscriptions that POPLINE has recently decided to make the term “abortion” a stop word in their database. For those unfamiliar with the term, a stop word is a word that a database will not include when used in a search. Typically, these are words like “and”, “or”, “to”, “of”, etc. If you include one of these words in your search, the database ignores it.

A medical librarian was having trouble replicating a search she performed in January on POPLINE and asked for assistance as to why her results were incomplete. This is the reply she received from POPLINE:

“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. In addition to the terms you’re already using, you could try using “Fertility Control, Postconception”. This is the broader term to our “Abortion” terms and most records have both in the keyword fields. Also, adding “unwanted w2 pregnancy” in place of aborti*. We have a keyword Pregnancy, Unwanted and there are 2517 records with aborti* & unwanted w2 pregnancy.”

You can still pull up the results by selecting “abortion” from the controlled vocabulary list, but no results are retrieved via a simple keyword search. I wonder at what point the abortion-related records will simply be purged from the database.

At this point it is unknown if they were getting pressure from above to make this change or if they made it, as they say, preemptively.

* Please understand, I know this can be a hot button issue, but this is a message about access to information and political interference in scientific research, not about abortion.*

Whatever your personal views are on abortion, this is not a database of personal belief systems. This is supposed to be a database of scientific literature which can be used by medical professionals and laypeople to find scientific research. On either side of the spectrum, if people are searching for scientific information about the physical or mental health effects or social implications of abortion, this database is doing them a serious disservice.