03 March 2008

Missing the obvious, Part 2: slapdash database grocery lists masquerading as articles in medical journals

Six months after
a "research letter" entitled World Databases of Summaries of Articles in the Biomedical Fields was published by Falagas et al. in the Archives of Internal Medicine, a politely-worded demolition of that pretentious excresence has appeared in the same journal's issue of 14 Jan 2008. I vented much less diplomatically about Falagas et al. last July, shortly after it had been published. What was it that raised my hackles and got my goat? Without even nodding in the direction of a library, Dr. Falagas and his team (it actually took more than one person?) sat around a computer one day, scribbled a straggly list of a few databases "based on our previous knowledge" and a few they happened to come across in Google, and by some unattested miracle got their sophomoric effort published in one of the world's most important medical journals. Imagine Will Ferrell and Jon Heder doffing their figure skates and heading for the Moulin Rouge.

I groused at some length about how this inept and unscientific approach not only missed the obvious but apparently escaped any intelligent peer review. I made reference to the well-known Murphy's Law definition of an expert as a person who avoids the small errors while sweeping on to the grand fallacy. Unfortunately, in Falagas' farrago even the small errors were hopelessly compounded, and he swept irreversibly on to something approaching Grand Guignol.

With their letter
subtitled "Getting the whole picture," Dr. Isobel C. Hoskins of CAB International and her two co-authors shine some welcome light on this Carnaval des spectres. With laudable courtesy and restraint — something I wouldn't be capable of under any circumstances — they list "some important omissions" from Falagas' shabby compendium of health databases: Global Health, CINAHL and PsycINFO, to name a few. They tactfully correct one of the grossest errors: "Readers should also be aware that the published list of additional databases includes hosts for databases such as Dialog and EBSCO rather than the databases themselves." As if his dilettantish approach wasn't bad enough, even Falagas' mistakes have errors. His misbegotten enumeration of database hosts omits OVID, for example. Hoskins et al. conclude by finally attempting the right thing and pointing to a health library website. They could have done better than supply a list of public health databases (CINAHL is not included), but in this weak suggestion Hoskins et al. are at least providing a hint to the readers of the Archives that it's all right to go beyond the input of colleagues and the Google prompt when looking for medical resources on the web.

In his two-paragraph reply, festooned with no less than four self-referential footnotes, Dr. Falagas welcomes the valuable input of "our colleagues." In a tone approaching that of a pronouncement from the Holy See he asserts his strong belief "that the availability of lists of databases ... is useful to researchers, clinicians, and other health care professionals." And he's not just whistling Gaieté parisienne. He goes on to puff more of his grocery lists, all of them published in major medical journals. And there are others he hasn't cited. This bloke pumps out more research than kicks at a cancan show (I count 298 PubMed citations to date). An extraordinary accomplishment considering that he seems not to have do-si-doed across the threshold of a library in his entire career. My question is: why doesn't he leave the choreography of knowledge-based information resources to those who know how to dance?

Before I get my petticoats into a real knot, I will briefly mention another of Falagas et al's forays into the world of databases and search engines
this time in a paper unaccountably published in FASEB Journal comparing PubMed, Scopus, Web of Science, and Google Scholar. Did anyone at FASEB edit this article or even look at the contents? A reading of the first clause of its first sentence is not encouraging: "The development along with the spread of the World Wide Web (WWW) represents an informational [sic] revolution ..." There is much more where this comes from as the article develops and spreads. "In conclusion, scientific databases of biomedical information are frequently used by both clinicians and researches [sic]. In this article, we compared the content and various practical aspects in [sic] the utility of the main databases of biomedical scientific information. We found that PubMed remains an important source for clinicians and researchers ..." And on they go in this manner for five densely printed pages without a single original thought, spinning in all directions, legs lifted and twirling. Zoot alors! Kick. Kick. Kick.