Improving PubMed: parerga and paralipomena

pubmedskeleton
A few weeks ago I posted about ways to improve PubMed in terms of both functionality and interface. At our “table talk” about this issue at the Canadian Health Libraries Association conference there were many wish list candidates and just as many pet peeves – more than could be stuffed into a single blog post. Some of the more incidental items not included in the top five – we can dignify them by calling them the parerga and paralipomena – are still of interest. I’ve dusted off the dog days hair from a nice selection. It should make for some undemanding beach reading in this season of sunshine, the Zen of tanning, and the sound of one synapse snapping.

For serious PubMed acolytes, satori has been an ever-receding prospect. In May we were told that change is coming to the PubMed interface; and the wait continues. The suspense is killing us, although just today I hear from the Krafty Librarian that enlightenment will come in September. Any moment now the new academic year will be sharking round the corner and sloping in fast. Soon the library will be filled with the slapping of flip-flops, the rattle of back pack straps, and the incessant digital smoke-signalling of smart phones as our students return to their colleges and coffee shop queues like Deleuzian nomads. (It must be my age, but teaching PubMed these days feels rather like trying to give a workshop on needlepoint at a skateboarding convention.)

In the midst of these developments a group of us are tasked with rewriting the library’s PubMed handout – our draggletailed effort to put something in the hand that may have sailed over the head. We’re concerned about our editorial efforts being overtaken by those promised developments this fall, resulting in useless screenshots and instructions rendered incomprehensible in the wink of an eye. What’s more, some of us are no longer convinced that printed handouts have much significance for students steeped in the culture of me, Wii and PS3. Still, we know that some will actually read the thing and find it a useful learning tool. So we persevere. We’re also rejigging seminar presentations to minimize the yawn quotient and to postpone for as long as possible the lurch of induced slumber. Essential to this project is avoidance of the irritating monotone and cruelly prolonged torpor that mar an otherwise mediocre training session.

Naturally such preoccupations lead to the kind of critical observations that come with too intimate an acquaintance with PubMed. Librarians are its most discriminating users, and so our opinions should count for something. None of the following suggestions will be cause for much flapping in the pigeon loft. But if our ultimate goal is to improve health care for all, then it is always worthwhile to expect more of our indispensable PubMed and to dream about how its beneficial influence could be extended. From what I hear so far, September’s promised changes will not be terribly exciting.

Ah well. Here, at any rate, are the parerga and paralipomena:

Foreign-language articles, or, What’s wrong with diacritics?

We’re not dummies. Why does PubMed insist on holding our hand? Let’s see the actual title of the article in the citation – in the original language. Most of us are using sophisticated computers with heaps of memory and advanced graphics. I’m not afraid of Chinese characters or Turkish accents. Being forced to browse non-English titles in translation and coddled in their chaste square brackets is as ersatz an affair as watching a dubbed film. Why can’t PubMed citations be allowed to be themselves, umlauts and all?

Make field tags work better with parentheses

A field tag should only have to be used once with a parenthetical expression. PubMed should accept a search expression of this type:

(aboriginal* OR inuit OR metis OR “first nations” OR “native people”) [TI]

It’s much less appealing to have to type all this:

aboriginal*[TI] OR inuit[TI] OR metis[TI] OR “first nations”[TI] OR “native people”[TI]

Colour it up

PubMed should improve the use of colour to highlight items added to the Clipboard as well as (optionally) items added to a Collection. The little green number – who invented that? – is too indistinct. Much more could be done with colour. Allow optional use of colour highlighting for records by publication type (RCTs, reviews, guidelines), by selected language(s), and other limits such as population, gender, country of publication, etc.

Citation display and sorting

Let’s have sorting of results in various ways: by author, date of publication, publication type, etc. Default display order for references should be an optional setting in My NCBI. Increase the default number of citations to display from the ridiculously low 20 to at least 50 or preferably 500.

Keyboard shortcuts

A useful option in PubMed would be keyboard shortcuts for selecting articles and for other functions (e.g., select tabs, change display, send to, save to clipboard, add to a collection). Better yet: make them customizable.

Clicking on tiny, fussy little check boxes is a time-wasting, synovium-damaging exercise.  (Remember the old DOS MEDLINE days, when you could highlight a record and select it by hitting the spacebar?) Currently, adding items to the Clipboard requires a two-step process (select item and then select Send To Clipboard from a pull-down menu). This process is sadly inefficient. It would be so much more convenient if items could be added to the Clipboard with a keystroke.

Email updates in My NCBI

This can’t be too hard a programming task. Let’s allow more than one email address for email updates. This can be useful for several reasons.

When an email update is requested from a saved search, PubMed currently defaults to the email address of the person whose My NCBI account created the search. This cannot be edited. It would be vastly more efficient if PubMed provided an editing option so that email updates could be sent to one or more email addresses.

The default for the number of records sent in any one email update is much too low. It should either not be set at all or should be set higher than five. This unhelpful initial setting is easily missed, and for searches that routinely retrieve more than five records, vital citations can be passed over. Yes, the emailed updates do include a link to view all results, but I would wager that many if not most end users don’t see it or don’t bother with it. This limit is an unnecessary impediment.

My Medline?

We absolutely have to rename “My NCBI” to something – anything – else. For cynics, I suggest Never Can Be Inspiring. The positive thinkers among us may prefer Nothing Can Beat It. There could be a contest to suggest a name. On second thought, that might result in a moniker similar in cutesiness to Loansome Doc.

I ask you: what’s wrong with plain old My PubMed? And for the truly adventurous, I would dare to suggest that we drop the name PubMed altogether and go back to calling the whole thing Medline.

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3 Responses to “Improving PubMed: parerga and paralipomena”


  1. 1 Alisha Miles August 6, 2009 at 7:51 am

    Good Morning,

    Great post! I think you have made some excellent suggestions. I really like the comments on adding highlighting options and color.

    I wanted to let you know that at the Redesign web meeting on 8/5/09, David stated you will no longer be able to view up to 500 results at one time. I think the maximum is 200 but I am not sure on that. The meeting went really fast and audio issues, but if I heard David correctly the 500 limit is going away.

    Also, another librarian asked about adding multiple emails to the send to email function. We were told this redesign is a visual redesign and not functional. The next redesign may include items like adding more than one email address, colors, highlighting, etc.

    My NCBI is changing a little. I think it will actually say preferences at the top. David stated cannot be renamed My PubMed since, it is used on multiple NCBI databases. So you can use My NCBI on the Journal page or other pages. It would be confusing if it was My PubMed since it is shared on multiple pages other than PubMed.

    Keyboard shortcuts would be awesome! Unfortunately, it looks like with everything migrating to the Advanced Search page you will actually have to do several more clicks. Check out my post for some more information & screen shots: http://alisha764.wordpress.com/2009/08/05/pubmed®-redesign-still-left-with-questions/

    Again, I think you make some excellent suggestions and I hope we can see them in PubMed one day. I would really like to see color, highlighting of key terms searched, etc. Excellent ideas!

    Alisha Miles
    Twitter: Alisha764

  2. 2 Erika August 6, 2009 at 1:26 pm

    Alisha, Color/highlighting of key terms searched is available, but you have to set it in My NCBI.

  3. 3 Rachel August 12, 2009 at 11:03 am

    Personal preferences for the display is something I’ve wanted for a while – every time I use PubMed, I’m manually adjusting to >20 results.


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