14 July 2007

PubMed searching. How do we improve it?

An article in Medical Education (May 2007) reports another study demonstrating yet again that medical students (like many of us) have problems using PubMed effectively.

After being given "pre-assigned readings introducing the logic and technique of searching the MEDLINE database," teams of year 1 and 2 medical students at the University of Louisville completed searches and emailed their search strategies for analysis by librarians. At the conclusion of these sessions, the teams completed a short-answer quiz. It wasn't clear whether PubMed or another incarnation of MEDLINE was used.

Interestingly, the students did well in the quiz, but that abstract knowledge didn't translate into a good search strategy. For example, 22 of the 24 teams received full credit on a question asking them to describe a MeSH term and how it helps to refine a search. However, at the same time the librarians found that "students used poor search techniques, did not understand Boolean logic, and overwhelmingly chose online article availability over article content, even if it resulted in not finding an article and failing the assignment."

To the authors of the study this indicates that although students may grasp the concept of MeSH terms, they do not understand searching logic and technique, that online convenience outweighs article quality, and that more thorough, formalized information literacy training is required.

Since the authors do not describe the "pre-assigned readings" given to the students, it is difficult properly to assess the study results. Perhaps the readings on Boolean logic were dry and did not keep the students' attention. The principal author of the study is not a librarian. I'm speculating here, but the selection of materials may have been made without the kind of assiduousness and professional discretion a librarian would have brought to the task.

It is obvious that good literacy training is required to help PubMed users develop effective search techniques. This study at least adds to the evidence that people need effective instruction which goes beyond passing them a handout.

Wood JA, Smigielski EM, Haynes G. Case-based approach for improving student MEDLINE searches. Med.Educ. 2007 May;41(5):510-511