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NLM Responds to Librarians’ Open Letter re: MeSH Term Changes

This blog post chronicles the dialogue between members of the health sciences library community and the National Library of Medicine regarding 2022 MeSH Term Changes. The post provides a link to the June 9th MLAConnect blog post highlighting these changes, librarians’ concerns with these changes, and includes the letter sent to NLM. Today’s post also includes NLM’s response to the letter and the librarian response to NLM’s June 22nd letter to Aidy Weeks, AHIP and Kelleen Maluski.

Earlier this month, more than 725 librarians signed onto a letter to the National Library of Medicine addressing recent changes to MeSH terms in 2022 that are considered offensive and outdated. The letter requested that changes be made to the process in which medical subject headings (MeSH) terms relating to marginalized groups are decided upon. The letter and more information can be found in this June 9th MLAConnect blog post.

On June 22nd, Associate Director of Library Operations for the National Library of Medicine, Dianne Babski provided the following response to the letter:

Dear Ms. Maluski and Ms. Weeks: 

Thank you for your June 11, 2022, correspondence regarding the National Library of MEdicine's Medical Subject Headings (MeSH®). We appreciate the concern you raise about terms related to marginalized groups in the 2022 edition of MeSH and the process by which changes are made to MeSH. NLM takes these matters seriously and values the input of stakeholders like you in helping us update MeSH in a manner that improves access to information while being inclusive and respectful. 

In considering concerns such as those highlighted in your letter, we are mindful that MeSH is designed to facilitate discovery of literature as it is publish over time. MeSH descriptors must therefore be reflective of terminology used in scientific studies with history and scope notes that aid in understanding how to search across timelines as terminology changes to ensure comprehensive literature search results. 

In 2022, NLM modified MeSH terms related to population groups to better align with standards for race and ethnicity promulgated by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for use across Federal agencies and adopted by the National Institutes of Health. These terms provide a common language to promote consistency and comparability of data by race and ethnicity across Federal agencies.

We recognize that changing these standard terms and associated scope notes created unintentional results. We are interested in better understanding these concerns and working with our stakeholders to develop potential solutions. To that end, we have organized a special session of NLM Office Hours on Thursday, June 30, 2:00pm-3:00pm ET. We invite you to join us at this forum to discuss ideas that will allow us to be consistent in applying Federal standards that guide MeSH while remaining inclusive and respectful.

This listening session is part of a broader NLM effort to end structural racism and promote racial equality and inclusion at NIH and within the larger biomedical research enterprise. NLM has engaged with the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities and the NIH Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research to evaluate and, where needed, modify MeSH terms that perpetuate systematic bias. Also, as a part of the NIH UNITE Initiative, NLM has begun assessing MeSH (and other products) through a racial and ethnic equity lens (REEL) framework.

We welcome your continued feedback on our efforts through stakeholder engagement opportunities made available through NLM and the Network of the National Library of Medicine (NNLM). We value your engagement and are listening to your input.


Dianne Babski, MIM
Associate Director, Library Operations
National Library of Medicine

Read NLM's Official Letter

With permission from both groups, we are reposting this exchange in MLAConnect. Kelleen, Aidy, and letter collaborators' response is below:

Dear Dianne,

We appreciate your response to our letter, current efforts underway and the upcoming opportunity to provide further feedback at the June 30th listening session, however, we are disappointed to read that rather than addressing the specific concerns outlined in the letter and signed by over 700 librarians both within North America and the world, the justification for existing practices was the general response received.

We recognize the need for standardizing terminologies as these controlled vocabularies are the ones we use as information professionals in supporting discovery of important topics in the biomedical literature. However, we also recognize that there are opportunities for ensuring that problematic terminologies are not the representative terms used in controlled vocabularies even when pointing to federal guidance.

For example, the Revisions to the Standards for the Classification of Federal Data on Race and Ethnicity (OMB Statistical Policy Directive No. 15) uses “Black or African Americans” rather than the current MeSH term of “Blacks”.

As outlined in the letter the remaining concerns do not affect the standardization of terms but rather the process and participation by the information professional and research community to make these vocabularies more inclusive and we hope you will strongly consider them with further revisions to MeSH.

We look forward to the listening session and will share this event and your response with others though we are concerned that the short turnaround to attend will limit participation for many individuals interested in providing feedback. We recommend that more sessions are provided in the future, especially for international information professionals who have participated in the letter.

Kind regards,

Kelleen Maluski and Aidy Weeks

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