OncologySTAT: end run around objectivity

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a brief news item today about a Reed-Elsevier web portal for oncologists called OncologySTAT, which provides free access to medical research in journals that are otherwise mainly accessed through library subscriptions, and pays for the service by showing ads to users. The kind of ad-based model in use here bypasses libraries and reduces scholars and practitioners’ dependency on institutionally funded services that aren’t as slick. If I find fault in this model an obvious thought might be, “Of course – it’s your job that’s disappearing.” But I could work for a commercial information provider if I wanted to. (Okay, Library Juice Press is technically a commercial information provider, but it’s not the same thing.) The point is that I choose to work in a library because I believe the library model has reasons behind it that are ethical and practical. Libraries aren’t funded by ad revenue, and that is part of how we ensure that what we present to users is not colored by commercial bias, by a desire to sell something. We’re not here to manipulate user behavior but to support user autonomy. There’s no conflict of interest in the library model. There’s no incentive to bury research that would hurt the sales of a sponsor’s product, or promote research that’s in the sponsor’s interest. An ad-based model has a built in factor for distorting the truth. The library model does not (at least in its pure form).

5 comments on “OncologySTAT: end run around objectivity

  1. I see sites like this (or STKE, or BoneKEy, or any number of subject oriented portals) as filling a need for a filter on the ridiculous amount of information out there.

    My concern is not with a portal for oncologists that has ads – probably a lot of the journals in OncologySTAT carry print ads. I’m concerned that they will not “get” the tight Elsevier content connection and not realize that they will not be getting much content from Elsevier’s competitors. Content which could be very important. They cover 25 non-Elsevier journals in cancer. That’s not a lot.

  2. The idea that libraries should favor processes that lead to more truths over falsehoods in the collection is interesting. I’m not sure this view is commonly held among librarians though. Don’t we say “our job is to make it available, we leave it up to the user to decide what’s true.” Are you arguing for a kind of library neutrality with respect to commercial bias, or are you saying the library should be biased in favor of truths over falsehoods? Or both? I’m confused.

  3. I think librarians generally adhere to the idea that we should be neutral in our collection building and reference service. I think most often this is thought of in terms of avoiding personal biases in performing our jobs. But I think avoiding the bias injected by commercial interests is an equally deep-rooted imperative and is one of the reasons that libraries have remained inherently non-commercial. Ultimately the reason for being neutral is to protect the autonomy of the user in judging what is true. In this situation, in addition to the imperative of avoiding commercial bias there is the imperative of avoiding censorship via commercial factors rather than moralistic ones. If research is buried because it is unfavorable to something being advertised through the portal, that’s an intellectual freedom concern.

  4. I’ll add that what makes intellectual freedom precious is that it protects access to the truth in situations (such as this) where it may otherwise be distorted.

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