Literature Searching: the Good, the Bad and the Epic Failures
06 July, 2020
by Fiona Watson, Library and Archives Manager.
One of my favourite parts of my job is running literature searches. If you are a researcher this might come as a surprise; you may regard the searching process as the dullest part of a project. But some of the topics I am asked to search on are fascinating and the experience is very different for librarians than it is for researchers. For one thing, it is much more relaxing running a search if you know you don’t have to read any of the articles!
Searching on a topic provides a crash course on a subject I often knew nothing about. For a few hours, days or weeks I can become a fount of disjointed partially understood facts on incredibly niche topics. My condolences to the people I pass these on to.
Obviously, this also provides one of the major challenges every librarian faces. I have dialled into meetings to be met with a metaphorical wave of neuroscience, which I don’t understand and definitely cannot spell, only to demo a possible search strategy five minutes later.
This is not to say I, and other librarians, do not spend significant portions of time gnashing their teeth when they can’t find what they need. Most of the frustration we feel during literature searches is exactly the same as it is for everyone else. The databases not being intuitive, glitching and not being able to do or find what we need. I was once conducting a search on chemsex on a point of care tool*, only to be told there was no such article but suggesting I might like to investigate the one on cheese.
One of my worst nightmares is when a search query needs to express the relationship of one thing to another. For example, I had an enquiry about whether hypothermia can cause stroke and was absolutely inundated with articles about hypothermia as a treatment for stroke. All databases can understand ‘stroke’ and ‘hypothermia’ but telling the database how one should relate to the other is much more difficult to express.
That said there are also many examples of human error that, as much as we’d like to, we can’t blame on the technology. For example, it is a very bad idea to copy and paste the minutes of meeting into a literature search request. You may end up being requested to come into the library to clarify a few points. I have compiled a list of further examples divided into common issues for your amusement and in the hope you won’t repeat our mistakes. Some I’m willing to admit to! But the rest are crowd sourced and anonymised.
The dangers of autocorrrect
I once spent far too much time searching for the MADRAS depression scale because that was what my requestor had asked for. Strangely, few people are measuring depressive symptoms in place names or recipes.
Another librarian ran a full search on ACL (anterior cruciate ligament), only for the requestor to apologise and say their phone had autocorrected it from ACJ (acromioclavicular joint).
Again, I spent far too long reading an article abstract on genetics without realising that caenorhabditis elegans is not a medical/genetic term I didn’t understand but in fact a worm. Excluding animal models is one of the most difficult and hilariously frustrating problems with some searches.
One librarian was asked by to verify something a radiology consultant had told another clinician, about a link between hip fractures and the direction the penis pointed in an x-ray. A little Googling brought her to the Wikipedia article on the John Thomas Sign leading to an excellent follow-up teaching session.
Another librarian ran into a wall when searching for intravenous administration (IV) and was getting far too many results to process. She didn’t realise that she was also getting every article using the roman numeral IV (4).
Synonyms and alternate uses
One of problems is unexpected synonyms. Examples include tablet (iPad etc) and tablet (pharmaceutical) or fall (elderly) and fall (autumn). Anything like this can lead to trawling through hundreds of irrelevant articles if you don’t realise what you have done.
Other librarians and I have also run into trouble searching the web for things like castrators (veterinary) and ‘ratchet control mouthpiece’ (dentistry) leading to a rather darker side of the internet than we had hoped. I really wish I hadn’t had a work experience student with me for that one.
* Point of care tools are databases designed to allow clinicians to look up information (such as treatment options, dosages and differential diagnoses) quickly, while they are with a patient.