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the department said it wanted to make the site more accessible to the public while addressing “content that is either outdated or does not reflect the priorities, philosophies, or goals of the present administration.”

The goal of the scrubbing is to “update or remove outdated content,” the directive said.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