I have distinct childhood memories of asking my mother what one word or another meant. She would point out that there was a dictionary close at hand designed exactly for that purpose and invite me to make use of it.
I remember asking my father to teach me to program in BASIC. He cheerfully agreed and handed me the big brown manual.
So maybe I’m weird and so are my folks, but these memories inform my take on the chatter in the blogosphere and on MEDLIB-L about this post by Harvard PhD student Anna Kushnir in which she expresses her frustration with PubMed. Kushnir writes (in part):
“I hate PubMed. I hate it with a burning passion. For a site that is as vital to scientific progress as PubMed is, their search engine is shamefully bad. It’s embarrassingly, frustratingly, painfully bad.”
“Why is PubMed so behind the times? Why? How does it even work? Does it search only the abstract? Does it also search the body of the papers that are available online? Why does it get so massively confused by an author’s initials and last name together, in one search? Why can’t it alert me when papers relevant to my work are published?”
I’m the first to admit that PubMed has problems and much room for enhancement, but if Kushnir had bothered to look at PubMed’s help manual or try some of its excellent tutorials she’d have learned exactly how it works, what PubMed indexes, how she can search by author, and that it can alert the user when papers relevant to her work are published via email or RSS.
So while PubMed has real, legitimate problems, Kushnir’s complaints don’t really touch on any of them. She could’ve resolved the problems she notes by flipping through the well-written, clearly laid-out, easy-to-navigate manual.
A number of helpful people who are much nicer than I am left useful comments for Kushnir.
Medical librarian Kathleen Crea offered a clear explanation of how articles are indexed and what MeSH is.
Medical librarian Rachel Walden even offered to help remotely with specific searches if Kushnir didn’t have a Harvard medical librarian handy.
But Kushnir decided that none of this really helped and later commented:
I don’t think I should have to be, or enlist the services of, a medical librarian in order to do a simple search on a literature search engine. PubMed should be an intuitive search engine such as Google, or others. I don’t know of many researchers, either MDs or PhDs, who have had extensive training in computer science or search algorithms. I am going to go out on a limb and say that I am representative of many other biomedical researchers in my struggles with PubMed. I am trained in Cell Biology and Virology. PubMed should be tuned to my needs and my skill set. I should not have to tune to it. Harsh as it may sound, PubMed is most useful for biomedical professionals, not for medical librarians or for computer scientists. Yes, if I devoted an afternoon or more to learning the system I dare say I would become a proficient, but my question stands – why should I have to?
The index of biomedical literature searched from PubMed is a vast and complex set of data. Any tool that will search it effectively for very specific needs will necessarily be complex. If Ms. Kushnir doubts this, perhaps she should perhaps try any other interface for the same data. Some other interfaces work better for some purposes and some users, but all are complex.
Using PubMed does not require “extensive training in computer science or search algorithms,” it requires reading the manual. Kushnir actually admits that if she “devoted an afternoon or more to learning the system” she would “become a proficient,” and yet she fails to recognize her complaints as the whining they are.
Kushnir writes at JOVE:
My rant somehow wound up on a medical librarian listserv and they came out in force defending NCBI and PubMed, listing pages and pages of helpful and warm instructions and hints on how to make it do what I need it to do, pages of suggestions, with offers of hands-on assistance and training, which have all been wonderful. Occasionally though, they were biting and harsh, saying that if I only knew what I was doing (and only if I weren’t so ignorant… yup, ignorant), PubMed would seem to me the greatest thing ever.
I’m not criticizing Kushnir’s ignorance and would take issue with those who did. Ignorance, once identified, should alert the librarian to a teaching opportunity- not an occasion for shaming. Criticizing the extraordinary laziness in her refusal to receive help from a librarian or to take a quick look at the manual, though? That’s fair game.
I am a research scientist by long, hard training. I am a fairly web-savvy research scientist, and still, I have trouble with PubMed.
As a medical librarian friend recently pointed out to me, it requires instruction to learn to drive a car. Kushnir is unwilling to read the manual and wants to blame PubMed/NLM for her difficulties. Kushnir talks about having spent hours trying to get PubMed to do what she wants, but declines help from multiple medical librarians who’re happy to teach her and can’t be bothered to invest 30 minutes in reading from the manual because it should, in her thinking, be possible to do without any effort on her part.
The search engine is not made for medical librarians. It’s not made for computer programmers. It’s made for scientists, to be used by scientists, needed most by scientists.
Actually, Medline’s history is that it was made primarily for medical librarians and secondarily for physicians, but that’s not really important.
It should be easy for scientists, goofy, only moderately-computer literate scientists, to use. It should be intuitive (read: Google), it should not have a ginormous page of inscrutable instructions, it should not require the hour-long training sessions, kindly offered at most medical libraries. It should be plug and chug.
I might just as well argue that the tools of virology research should be intuitive to me. After all, I’m a very computer-literate, Web-savvy biomedical information professional. Why should I need her years of training to understand her work? (Hint: Because the work is complex and involves a skill set that grows, with effort, over time.)
Kushnir also describes PubMed’s help documentation as “inscrutable.” When I was teaching myself how to use PubMed, I found the documentation clear and helpful, so this surprised me. I decided to run the PubMed Quick Start document through Google Docs’ analysis:
Let’s review these scores:
Flesch Reading Ease: 62.97
(A score from 60-69 is considered “standard”)
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 5.00
Automated Readability Index: 5.00
(Again, fifth grade)
So it would appear that the help documentation is written at a fifth-grade level. I find it hard to believe that a PhD student at Harvard cannot read at a fifth-grade level, so I’m left with the impression that Ms. Kushnir didn’t actually attempt to read any of the documentation before declaring it “inscrutable.”
Suggestions for Ms. Kushnir and other research scientists who don’t like reading the instructions:
- Since Ms. Kushnir is convinced that the Google model is adequate and “intuitive” for searching the primary biomedical literature, I’ve made a Google CSE that’ll allow her to search PubMed using Google. Given how many times I’ve helped people who can’t find what they’re looking for via Google (which can’t really be effectively utilized for very specific information needs without reading the instructions), I’ll be interested to hear how well it works for her.
So the tool is necessarily complex because the data it searches is complex and the user refuses to read the well-written help documentation or accept help from a friendly librarian (even when multiple librarians are reaching out across thousands of physical miles of distance and the gulf of the patron’s unwillingness to learn).
I can only conclude that sometimes the user *is* broken. (See Karen Schneider’s excellent post, “The User is Not Broken”.)
Thank you to the two medical librarian friends who read the first draft of this post and offered comments.