When I think about the current state of PubMed, I am reminded of the apocryphal Irishman who, when asked the road to Dublin, replied, “If I wanted to get to Dublin, I wouldn’t start from here.” We have come a long way from the old command line interface, but in the harsh digital glare of the increasingly rapid advances of web technology all around us, PubMed is beginning to look feeble and a bit tatty.
But it isn’t just that PubMed’s overall appearance could use an overhaul. Many of us frequent and not-so-frequent users are increasingly dissatisfied with the usability of the interface, the presentation of the data, and the seemingly haphazard pace of development. In his keynote at the Canadian Health Libraries Association conference in Winnipeg, David Rothman reminded us once again of the opinionated Harvard PhD student, Anna Kushnir, whose rant about PubMed grabbed the attention of librarians. Although her criticisms were hasty and ill-informed, we know they reflect the frustrations of many users of the database. We shouldn’t dismiss them with knowing smiles. Kushnir’s diatribe in a prominent publication was a clear signal that change is needed. PubMed cannot remain in statu quo.
On the last day of CHLA 2009, we arranged ourselves into groups and held “Table Talks” about various issues confronting health libraries. I sat at one of two tables given the less than onerous task of coming up with ideas for improving PubMed. Our discussion was lively and the time passed quickly as we nearly fell over ourselves in our eagerness to get to Dublin.
From the many recommendations that were made, these are at the top of my wishlist:
1. Direct Export to Citation Managers
Importing references from PubMed into citation managers is a cumbersome process (display results in MEDLINE format, save results to text file, import text file into citation manager). For institutions using RefWorks, RefGrab-It helps. But wouldn’t it be nice if PubMed offered its own single-step direct citation export à la Scopus? Even Google Scholar can do this trick. It might also get some people to actually use PubMed rather than searching it from within EndNote or Reference Manager.
2. Improve the MeSH database
Where to start. The MeSH database is stiff and laboured, with occasional outbreaks of tumid extravagance. My group all agreed that we need clearer, more intuitive visual displays of the thesaurus and subheadings. The creation of a search statement using MeSH headings needs a complete rethink. The ‘Add To’ feature for inserting MeSH terms to a search box is kludgy. Parentheses can end up skewed when AND and OR statements are added to this box. Even searching for MeSH headings is difficult and unpredictable. But worse, no one really understands it. When I teach MeSH, my students glaze over as if I were lecturing on 12-tone music. The way PubMed presents MeSH is fussy and needlessly complex. We need a MeSH mashup.
3. Eliminate need for capitalization of Boolean operators
Does this require further elaboration? AND, OR and NOT are ridiculous holdovers from the days of vacuum tubes and punchcards. They should die now.
4. Add adjacency searching and real string searching
Adjacency searching, although chiefly of interest to librarians and hackers, would crank up the power and precision of our search strategies. And let’s allow true quoted phrase searching. Right now a phrase in double quotation marks will only be found if that phrase appears in PubMed’s phrase index. Searching for an unindexed phrase, e.g., “enhanced interrogation,” “assessment and management,” is out of the question.
5. Simplify the creation of permanent links to PubMed records
This is my own little bugbear. Couldn’t there be a simpler way to create a permanent link to a PubMed record? How about a neat little button which, when clicked, will copy the permanent link for one or more records to the operating system clipboard for easy insertion into a document or web page.