[A Monday afternoon editorial.]
Sometime within the past couple of months, the National Institutes of Health decided to start enforcing the requirements of its public access mandate that went into effect in April of 2008. On the one hand, it was nice of NIH to give its funded researchers a year or two or five to come around to following the rules. Yet on the other, the recent applied pressure has sent a flurry of befuddled and irritated biomedical researchers, clinical researchers, research coordinators, administrative assistants, and any number of other folks my way, usually in a deadline-induced panic, trying to figure out what the heck they’re supposed to do to get in compliance with the law.
For awhile, I was slightly irritated myself – at the researchers, that is. When it comes to “the Mandate,” I’ve been announcing and instructing and updating and troubleshooting ad nauseum for these past years. I’ve sent out countless invitations to talk to departments, to labs, to admins, to the staff in research funding (and to their credit, many – though hardly a majority – took me up on it). I have made it my business to know every in and out and upside down aspect of this Policy since before it became law, lo those many years ago now. And so, over the past couple of months, I’ve stifled more than one, “What rock have you been living under?!” retort to more than one, “NIH has instituted another new thing!” whine landing in my email inbox or coming across my phone line.
All of this said, as I have worked to smooth and soothe and clean up messes these past weeks, I can’t help but come to the conclusion that NIH, and more, the National Library of Medicine, could have done us all a HUGE favor if they had taken just a moment to think through the naming conventions that they chose for the various resources and tools associated with this Policy. Why, for the love of Pete, did you name PubMed Central, PubMed Central? Why is there something so crucial as “My Bibliography” buried within “My NCBI”? Why are there “journal publishers that submit articles on behalf of authors,” as well as “journal publishers that submit manuscripts on behalf of authors”?
If you think that I typed the same thing twice there, read again. Closely. Which is EXACTLY what you have to say to researchers over and over and over again.
And that’s kind of my point. In one of the most basic textbooks of library science, Richard Rubin’s, Foundations of Library and Information Science, every aspiring librarian learns a handful of principles related to information management and organization. As Rubin warns, “Unless there are ways to organize it,it (information) quickly becomes chaos.” (p. 171)
Perhaps one can make a strong argument that the conundrum that is the naming conventions of NIH/NLM resources and tools isn’t really a naming convention problem at all. There certainly are distinctions between them. “My Bibliography” is not the same as “My NCBI.” PubMed is a completely different database than PubMed Central. How hard is this to grasp?! I argue, harder than the average librarian and/or programmer and/or chief resource namer of highest level (aka CRNHL – pronounced “colonel” – on Twitter) ever realizes.
I bring this topic up on my informationist blog because I find it pretty funny (in a black humor, ironic sort of way) that one of the primary reasons I was placed on a research team was because of my expertise in information organization. Librarians are the experts in applying the standards, language, and processes that help people communicate, find, and access information more easily and efficiently. This being the case, I can’t help but wonder why we shot ourselves in the foot here, choosing labels that are so easily confused and swapped one for the other. Like homology, homography, or holograms and homograms… who can’t help but get these mixed up? And when there is a compliance officer, grant funding, and a deadline all in play, well, we in the information arena could do better to make things a little easier on everyone.