April 2, 2008

A medical librarian, who ran a typical search on POPLINE, (the world's largest database on reproductive health) found something very disturbing. The term "abortion" had been pretty much blocked from its database for normal searches . Go here and try the search. I did and got "No records found by latest query."

What is 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database on reproductive health, containing citations with abstracts to scientific articles, reports, books, and unpublished reports in the field of population, family planning, and related health issues. POPLINE is maintained by the INFO Project at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health/Center for Communication Programs and is funded by the United States Agency for International Development. (USAID).

I was contacted yesterday by someone and given this email thread. Here's what he/she said in the email:

The e-mail exchange below is fairly straight-forward: a governmental database on Population, POPLINE (POPulation OnLINE) has been changed so that one can no longer search the term "abortion." As the representative from POPLINE states, "As a federally funded project, we decided this was best for now."

I suspect pressure was placed from on high to do this. Why would the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, where POPLINE is hosted, decide on its own to eliminate searching for information on abortion? I hope you can publicize this outrageous maneuver.

Here's the email conversation that was posted here. It's quite troubling. Names were edited for confidentiality!

To: Debra L. Dickson
POPLINE Database Manager/Administrator
INFO Project
111 Market Place, Suite 310, Baltimore, MD 21202
Tel: 410-659-6300 / Fax: 410-659-6266

Hi Debbie –

Thank you for your quick response to my e-mail. I have forwarded your e-mail to researchers with whom I am working; I suspect they will be as puzzled as I about the decision to make “all abortion terms stop words” in the government funded, publically available “POPLINE” database. Even more troubling is the implications for the average user – eliminating this term essentially blocks access to the reports in the database and ultimately to information about abortion. “Unwanted w2 pregnancy” is not a synonym for abortion.

My colleague and I are also forwarding this e-mail to several organizations whose members are primarily medical librarians. We suspect they will also be puzzled by the notion that a perfectly good noun such as “abortion” should for no apparent reason be classified as a “stop word” and equated with “a”, “an”, “the”.

A better explanation is deserved – the explanation should also be posted on the website for all users to know, e.g., “The POPLINE database producers have decided to ignore “abortion” as a searchable to term because ……. ?

We look forward to a better explanation for why this term has been eliminated; all of the users of POPLINE deserve to know.


From: Dickson, Debbie L. [mailto:ddickson@jhuccp.org]
Sent: Tuesday, April 01, 2008 7:26 AM
To: researcher name removed
Subject: RE: Popline retrieval discrepancy

Hi researcher,

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

I hope this helps.


From: researcher name removed
Sent: Monday, March 31, 2008 3:51 PM
To: Dickson, Debbie L.
Subject: RE: Popline retrieval discrepancy

Hello Debbie:

I left a message on your voice mail today regarding POPLINE, but didn’t explain the problem I’m encountering, so here is an email follow-up.

When I ran this strategy on Jan 18, 2008, POPLINE retrieved 1684 refs; when I re-ran the same strategy today, POPLINE retrieved fewer refs, ie, 1478 refs. Usually, when a search is re-run at a later date, the total number of references retrieved is more, not less. Has POPLINE undergone some major change in the past few months that might explain the decreased retrieval? What can account for this discrepancy?

(strategy removed)

I also tested a second strategy that was developed in Jan 2008 and had similar results, ie, fewer refs retrieved this time than previous. Puzzling?!?

Appreciate a prompt response --

Thank you, researcher.

Ms. Dickson may be contacted at:

Debra L. Dickson
POPLINE Database Manager/Administrator
INFO Project
111 Market Place, Suite 310, Baltimore, MD 21202
Tel: 410-659-6300 / Fax: 410-659-6266

Women's Health News did a little digging and says: "Why is a Government-Funded Reproductive Health Database Blocking Users from Searching for Abortion Articles?

Now, a little digging reveals that the POPLINE folks haven’t actually removed the term “abortion” (or related ones) as subject terms from the citations, or from their Thesaurus which tells you which subjects appear in the database. If you know to use the “Browse Index”* you can still find the term and come up with almost 25,000 results. However, if you simply enter the word “abortion” in the Subject search box, as the instructions directly above the box suggest you should be able to do, the search returns 0 results. Another work-around is to enter the search as =”Abortion” as the Index search would do, and you can still get the results. Of course, that applies for now, until they realize that the work-around is there and remove it as well.

Right now, this move is essentially a barrier to your basic search/er - an advanced searcher might get 25,000 results, while someone just following directions will get none. As the librarian reporting the problem noted, “It is important to remember that this database is used by both professional searchers and the public. The average user goes directly to the query box and searches; they will retrieve nothing when the term “abortion” is entered.” She also notes that using the advanced options was *not* among the suggestions from POPLINE personnel in response to her inquiry...read on

Medical librarian blogs are now actively picking up on this:

Sure, you can search for "unwanted pregnancy" or, (as the representative from the database suggests) "Fertility Control, Postconception," but these are not the terms people use. A good search engine is responsive to both vernacular and specialized terms, providing results that allow the user to learn the more specialized terms as their research progresses. Now, to use POPLINE, you have to know in advance.

Turning to their handy "Keyword Guide" won't help you either, because Abortion, Abortion Law, and Abortion Rate are all still misleadingly listed as keywords.

Government Database Restricting Information On Abortion

Bush Acts on Abortion 'Gag Rule'

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