A proposal to remove certain information from the U.S. Department of Education’s web site has drawn criticism from an alliance of organizations representing academics and researchers.

In a letter sent to Education Secretary Rod Paige in late October, representatives of 12 groups—including the American Library Association (ALA) and the American Educational Research Association (AERA)—questioned the political overtones of a directive announcing an overhaul of the department’s web site.

In the directive, issued May 31, the department said it wanted to make the site more accessible to the public while addressing “content that is either outdated or does not reflect the priorities, philosophies, or goals of the present administration.”

The goal of the scrubbing is to “update or remove outdated content,” the directive said.

Felice Levine, AERA’s executive director, said the organizations are troubled by the impact these revisions might have on academic research.

“We are essentially asking the secretary to open up a reflection and dialogue that all such information is protected from a political litmus test,” Levine said.

Education Department (ED) spokesman Daniel Langan called the letter the result of a “misunderstanding” over a proposal that is still in the “discussion stages.”

“There are no plans for a wholesale elimination of anything on the site. Everything will be archived and available to our customers,” he said.

However, archiving information that is removed might not adequately serve the needs of researchers accustomed to easy access to department data, said Patrice McDermott, assistant director of government relations in ALA’s Washington office.

“The problem is if they just put [information] on a server somewhere, it’s preserved, but it’s not permanently, publicly available,” she said. “There’s almost no way to find it unless it’s indexed—and there’s no guarantee it will be kept in a form that will be useable.”

Besides information left over from the previous administration, ED is considering the removal of digests written by the Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC), a clearinghouse for research on hot-button topics in education. This seems strange, researchers say, given the Bush administration’s emphasis on research-driven programs.

Bush’s presidency marks the first time a political administration has changed since ED created its web site in 1994. Government web sites are covered by the same laws that protect the public’s right to access other federal records—but in an era when many people get a majority of their information online, how this information is preserved is an important question that must be addressed.

Whatever archiving format ED officials decide to use should have a built-in search engine so its contents can be searched easily, McDermott said. Also, people will need to know where they can find this content.

“The big question is where. If it is going to be online, why isn’t it going to remain a part of [ED’s] web site?” she said, referring to information that is removed during the scrubbing.

Langan said Paige would respond to the groups’ letter. At press time, McDermott said she had not yet received a response.

Links:

American Educational Research Association
http://www.aera.net

American Library Association
http://www.ala.org

Text of the groups’ letter
http://www.ala.org/washoff/webscrubbing.pdf

U.S. Department of Education
http://www.ed.gov

The text of the letter follows:

October 25, 2002

The Honorable Rod Paige
Secretary of Education
U.S. Department of Education
400 Maryland Avenue, SW
Washington, DC 20202

Dear Secretary Paige:

We are writing to express the concerns of our organizations about the recently reported initiative within the U. S. Department of Education (ED) to remove from public access information that “does not reflect the priorities, philosophies, or goals of the present administration.” While the Department is aware of the problems such a move would create, the steps it has recently suggested to address these problems still fall short because archived material would clearly not be as accessible.

We recognize that the Department may reorganize its web site, and we applaud your attempts to improve the transparency of this site so that the public can find information more easily. However, the Department’s announced initiative to remove documents has raised significant concerns and questions among the library, educational research, and related social science communities, and we would value and appreciate a response.

One of our primary concerns centers on the fate of information scheduled to be removed from your publicly accessible web site. As you are aware, information created or collected by the government, whether in tangible or electronic form, is a federal record. Therefore, we would like to know what steps the Department is taking to preserve information and provide the easiest possible permanent public access to any materials that are removed? Because the internet has become by far the method of choice for disseminating information and research data widely and efficiently, we are concerned about efforts that would diminish access and use of these records.

Secondly, we are equally concerned with any actions that would remove from access research, data, and other digests of information that otherwise have been publicly available, irrespective of administrations, by the Department of Education. Such materials are essential to advancing scientifically-based research and need to remain accessible to the library, educational research, and related scholarly communities.

For example, we are uncertain about ongoing access to materials in the Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC) on the Department of Education web site. Will a link to the ERIC site be established and maintained on the Department’s site? Will it be visible to experienced and new researchers who can add knowledge and insights analyzing such information? Finally, we are concerned about the role of educational researchers, related social and behavioral scientists, librarians, those with expertise in data dissemination and preservation, and other public stakeholders in the development of any plan to access materials on the Department’s web site. Information available through the U. S. Department of Education web site is used by a wide variety of professionals, including educators, scholars, public decision makers, and the public more broadly, and they should be consulted throughout this process. We urge you to hold meetings with them and listen to their concerns and ideas.

Members of our associations appreciate your attention to this important matter. We, as well as the general public, need internet access to the research, data, reports, and other digests and information that may be removed from the Department’s web site. We would appreciate hearing what steps the Department intends to take to ensure ongoing access to documents scheduled to be removed.

Sincerely,

Emily D. Sheketoff
Executive Director
American Library Association Washington Office

Felice J. Levine
Executive Director
American Educational Research Association

James Kohlmoos
Executive Director
National Education Knowledge Industry Association

Corinne Anderson-Ketchmark
President
School Social Work Association of America

David G. Imig
President and CEO
American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education

Sally Hillsman
Executive Officer
American Sociological Association

Reg Weaver
President
National Education Association

Ronald F. Abler
Executive Director
Association of American Geographers

Kimberly Green
Executive Director
National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium

John J. Siegfried
Secretary-Treasurer
American Economic Association

Gerald N. Tirozzi
National Association of Secondary School Principals

Howard Silver
Executive Director
Consortium of Social Science Associations

Additional Organizations Signing On:

Society for Research in Child Development
National Association of Social Workers