27 July 2007

Missing the obvious

I have the greatest respect for the Archives of internal medicine. It is a venerable institution, which, according to Journal Citation Reports, ranks eighth amongst general medicine journals with an impact factor of 7.920. To get published in the Archives is a mark of distinction, to be sure. Now, I'm certainly not privy to the editors' rationale for selecting articles, but I do have a bone to pick with one I read recently.

In the issue of 11 June 2007 a "research letter" was published with the imposing title: World Databases of Summaries of Articles in the Biomedical Fields. A Greek MD and a group of collaborators report on their hunt for databases from around the world which "archive information regarding scientific publications in biomedical and life sciences." The fruit of their research is a page-long list, a diverse collection of resources such as the ArabPsyNet (Arabic, French, English, described only as covering 23 psychology and psychiatry journals), and Media Sphere (Russian, 14 searchable medical journals from a single publisher). The list ranges from the vast and expanding EBSCOHost to the 11 journals covered by the Greek-language Iatrotek.org.

Much labour must have been spent in doing the research for this brief article. But as I looked it over it struck me that the way the authors had gone about their work was entirely wrongheaded. Not only had they missed the obvious, I should think it hardly possible to come a cropper with more precision.

I read the entire article carefully, analyzing the methodology, looking for that familiar word starting with the letter 'l' which would indicate that they had perhaps not totally wasted their time. Nowhere was it to be found. Not once in the entire text of this article do the authors mention that they consulted a librarian or even used a library's online resources.

We are told that at the onset of their investigations the authors "made an initial list of relevant databases based on our previous knowledge." Naturally one has to begin somewhere. But this kind of exercise is to research methodology what Chopsticks is to Chopin.

With their initial list drawn up, the authors proceed to part two of their methodology. They "looked in popular World Wide Web search engines (specifically, Google, AltaVista, and Yahoo)." They used "several keywords including medical, biomedical, medicine, biomedicine, databases, library, archive, and online." Acknowledging that they were not trying to produce an exhaustive compilation, they assert that their aim was "to generate an initial list of such databases that may gradually be expanded by the input of the scientific community."

There is a peculiar blindness and ingenuousness in their approach, and one can't help squirming slightly, as one would at a sophomore’s half-page explanation of the Hegelian dialectic.There is a well-known definition of an expert as a person who avoids the small errors while sweeping on to the grand fallacy. (Arthur Bloch, Murphy's law and other reasons why things go wrong, 1977). Well, in our research letter even the small errors seem to be compounded, sweeping on to something approaching Grand Guignol.

I will refrain from going into any further detail. Read the article for yourselves, and weep. Had the authors ignored Google for a moment and gone to any self-respecting health library’s website, anywhere in the world, they would have found that most of their work had already been done for them. Instead they have the distinction of having published an article in the Archives of internal medicine that is at best a curiosity. Although some little-known resources are brought out of obscurity, this effort does nothing to enhance medical research, but succeeds wonderfully at raising librarians' hackles.


The Krafty Librarian said...

Perhaps you should write a response to the Editors regarding the article.

Anonymous said...

Hi Mark,

I love your blog and its look and have to thank you for introducing me to a great new word- nugacity.

It is quite frustrating to realize that these doctors are not even aware that we exist while we spend an entire career learning every aspect of their profession to better ours (and serve them.) The title is especially grating. It makes me glad that most of my job serves patients and visitors.