Yesterday I attended an online webinar focused on the changes in the new PubMed. Holly Ann Burt from the GMR was the instructor and she was great. (I will be linking to the recording when it is available.) However at one point in time during the session one librarian became rather frustrated with how the designers made it that much more difficult to search PubMed using MeSH. Her complaint was that doctors were not going to know where to click and how to search using MeSH within the new version of PubMed. My first thought was that most doctors weren’t using MeSH prior to the redesign anyway. Sad, but I think pretty much true.
I must confess, I am not a huge PubMed user. My MoC (Medline of Choice) is through Ovid. I really love Ovid’s mapping in Advance Search, I think that is one of its strongest features. The mapping allows me to quickly type in a keyword in the search box and be presented with the correct MeSH term. The mapping forces you to at least see a MeSH term, which is one of the strongest features of MEDLINE. Does it work all the time? No sometimes you can get some wonky results when you have an odd term (or when you unknowingly type it incorrectly). But even in that case I like it because it forces me to re-examine my terms and strategies early in the search process. I am not blindly searching via keyword and either missing vital information or retrieving everything under the sun.
I have always felt PubMed hides the MeSH in the closet. It really never had very good front end mapping. If you really wanted to be sure you were searching using MeSH terms you had to go to the MeSH database, search it and then ADD it to your PubMed search. Clunky. What doctor wants to do that? Many don’t. Heck I don’t want to do that and I am a librarian, but I do it when I search PubMed. Of course over the years PubMed has made various improvements on the keyword searching. In this latest version, PubMed uses Automatic Term Mapping (all behind the scenes) to search for the keyword as a MeSH term, subheading, Publications type, Pharmacologic action term, and All Fields. Personally I think this produces a ton of results with a lot of extra junk citations. I think it is just one step better than Google.
There is one way to stop the citation deluge, and that is to have sound search strategies using MeSH. But through out history, PubMed has done such an outstanding job of hiding the MeSH that it is no wonder that the average user doesn’t know or care about MeSH. Must I remind you of Ana Kushnir’s blog entry, I Am Not Yelling. Not Out Loud, about why she hates PubMed. She had no idea of really how to use PubMed and of MeSH terms. She is not alone. There are tons of doctors, nurses, medical students, etc. who do a Google search on PubMed and they think they are getting the right stuff.
I believe that PubMed’s inability or refusal to actively map people’s keyword searches to MeSH terms out front glaring at you on the page (like Ovid), is reason why people don’t search MeSH in PubMed. In Ovid I am forced to pick a MeSH term, in PubMed I am blindly given results. Doctor’s, nurses, and medical students didn’t go through school speaking or using MeSH, all the more reason to bring it out of the forefront of the search and force them to see it and choose it when searching a database that indexes using it! Yet PubMed designers chose to hide it behind a curtain. While we librarains were doing are darndest Toto impersonation to reveal the truth behind curtain, there was no way our message could be heard by everybody. Getting doctors and researchers to search via MeSH was a losing battle.
Now with the latest redesign the battle is lost. The ability to search MeSH is even more clunky, the MeSH terms are minimized (hidden) within the abstract results and the details box in Advanced Search will be disappearing. PubMed has made their product the Google database of medical literature. Congratulations. Searchers like Google, it is the number one search engine. I am just not sure I want my medical database to end up to be that. Before you know it NCBI may wonder why we are even bothering with this whole MeSH thing anyway, why index when everybody is doing keyword searching anyway? Everybody is Googling. Now let’s be clear, I never heard anybody say that nor do I have any super secret handshake knowledge of that happening. Quite frankly I bet those in charge of PubMed right now would say we would never think of ending the MeSH indexing of articles. But, that is right now. What happens 10, 20, 30 years from now? PubMed’s hiding the MeSH in the background was the first, but crucial step in making MeSH irrelevant to the searcher.