When I became director of the National Library of Medicine (NLM), I took an oath of office in which I promised to uphold the U.S. Constitution. As we celebrate Independence Day, I’m reflecting once again on what that oath means to me and how I live out my commitment to it through my work.
This time, I want to reflect on the role of NLM in democratizing information access. As the world’s largest biomedical library, NLM supports health care and biomedical discovery by helping to ensure direct access to biomedical information and research for the scientific community and the public.
NLM delivers scientific knowledge to the nation and to the world. Through MEDLINE and PubMed, we provide a platform for scientists and scholars to share their findings freely and a database that can be used by anyone to explore and discover biomedical and health information. It’s a sound investment of federal dollars; a boon to research; and a reliable resource for patients, families, and caregivers.
The Library has established critical elements essential for journals included in our collection. These include editorial practices that contribute to the objectivity, credibility, and quality of the content. These critical elements let the public know that the information NLM presents is trustable.
NLM is committed to making the biomedical and scientific literature accessible to all. The Library does not decide what gets published; journals and their editorial boards do that. But as a library, NLM is committed to archiving the published literature over time to reflect the state of knowledge now and the ways knowledge grows. For example, sometimes claims published in the biomedical literature are superseded by new discoveries. A lack of reproducibility calls other findings into question. Medical perspectives might change or broaden to encompass the patient’s perspective where the professional’s or clinician’s had been privileged previously. Other published findings might turn out to be flat wrong, due to, among other things, invalid assumptions, improper methodology, or unsupported claims that were not caught during peer review.
It’s often said, though, that the literature is self-correcting. Science takes the long view, and our job at NLM is to let it, documenting where the science stands today and pointing to where it might go in the future, but otherwise remaining neutral about what’s published—as long as the journal’s content shows strong scientific merit; the process for selecting that content is transparent and sound (e.g., external peer review, ethical practices, stated conflicts of interest, prompt corrections or errata); and the journal offers opportunities for comment and dissent.
This recognition of the ongoing process of correction and refinement also drives the education we do with our partners from the National Network of Libraries of Medicine to build health literacy in communities across the country.
The Library further supports access to trustable health information by being a resource for journalists as they convey health information to the general public. NLM annually hosts a group of fellows from the Association of Health Care Journalists, bringing them to the National Institutes of Health campus for four days of training to enhance their use of our many health information offerings and to help them integrate biomedical research into their reporting. The journalists also learn about key topics in health care, such as health disparities, patient engagement, and clinical effectiveness research, better preparing them to report on these and other crucial or emerging issues.
Through it all, NLM collaborates with our sister federal agencies to deliver to the public quality health information and health data, working together to ensure freedom of ideas about biomedical discovery and health care delivery.
That’s worthy of fireworks, wouldn’t you say?