Searching the Biomedical Literature

by Hans on 2005/04/16

I’m in the midst of working on (another) systematic review for my dissertation. For this review, I am interested in identify “theory-type” papers in the biomedical literature. Guess what? It’s really difficult. At first, I thought that I wasn’t proficient at searching the biomedical literature (mostly Medline and Embase), so I contacted a librarian to help me develop a search strategy. After meeting with her, I wasn’t much better off than before. The librarian, however, did help in crafting a search that is easier to reproduce and manipulate. I actually learned quite a bit on how to use Medline itself (well, actually, it’s probably more like getting a better idea of the commands found in Ovid databases).

The librarian also noted that theory papers are very difficult to find in the biomedical literature. We guessed that it’s because Medline and Embase are “applied” in nature and geared towards trying to answer clinically relevant questions. Another reason is in how the MeSH terms are applied – there’s a judgment call that needs to be made from the staff at the National Library of Medicine. I would also guess that publishing theoretical papers is more difficult, and therefore these types of papers do not get indexed as a result.

I’m writing about this because I was having a discussion with Murray Enkin yesterday about some of the “upcoming” trends in the medicine, and sciences in general. He mentioned that medicine seems to run through a number of fads/bandwagons, and that he was fortunate enough to be at the beginning of two of them – natural child birth and Randomized Controlled Trials (RCTs)/Evidence Based Medicine (EBM). Murray seems to think that RCTs/EBM have almost run their course as the *hot* area. I think I agree with him. We talked about a few areas that may be the “next big thing”, and wondered whether they would take-off (things like Foucault, Post-modernism, and quantum theory). Murray mentioned one area, which I thought there already seemed to be quite a bit of buzz around, and he really jumped on that one. In his opinion, he thinks this area has the potential to be as big (if not bigger) than the RCT/EBM movement. He noted that maybe in the people with whom I’ve been speaking, this topic already seems to be something that has infiltrated the mind-set, but that it’s not even on the radar screen of the rest of the “world”.

An interesting idea. So, I tried to search the medical literature for articles on this topic. Guess what? Not much out there. Of the few that I found, most were “theoretical”. I looked at the MeSH terms, and I couldn’t really make sense out of the groupings. Forget trying to craft a search strategy (at this point in time). Question: How do people identify emerging trends in the literature? Usually by the time there is a sufficient number of publications (or grants), it’s probably too late. Something to think about.

Anyway, I think the current big thing is in human factors/usability. In my naive opinion, I think that human factors will drive eHealth research for the next 5-15 years, filtering into clinical research as well. I don’t think human factors research will ever go away – I just think that it will be and stay hot for the next little while. Somewhere down the horizon, I think we’re headed towards post-modern science – uncertainty rules the day.

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