librarianship; information literacy; searching; PubMed
Controlled vocabularies are necessary for clinical research and clinical practice. When medical librarians use the same language to describe the same phenomena, scientific knowledge advances and best practices can be developed. MeSH is never objective. These headings always reflect some ways of understanding the world and exclude others. This project attempts to understand how bias is embedded in the controlled terms that structure medical knowledge and implications for medical librarians.
The project team analyzes exemplar headings related to race and ethnicity and gender and sexuality to understand and reflect on the problem of hegemonic knowledge structures in MeSH.
Race and ethnicity MeSH terms are found under “Ethnic Groups” and “Continental Population Groups”. Clinical and public health research has used predefined population labels, particularly those defined by the Office of Management and Budget. However, MeSH terms do not precisely match these categories. Additionally, the absence of terms for 1) European Americans as an ethnic group and 2) Middle Eastern as a continental population group reflect normative and othering structures.
“Gender and Sexual Minorities” is the official MeSH term used as an umbrella phrase to describe research on queer, gay, trans and other people from the LGBTQI community. This term presents a misleading representation of gender and sexuality. The terms included under “Gender and Sexual Minorities” include “dissident, sexuality” and “non-heterosexuals” which makes heterosexuality appear to be the default in medical research and reflects an inherent bias.
There are numerous examples of misleading, biased, and discriminatory MeSH language for trans, intersex, gay, and queer people.
Adding relevant headings and improving automatic term mapping could increase the findability of health disparities/health inequities research, enabling evidence syntheses and identification of gaps in the research.