Whenever a juicy controversy breaks out in library-land, I always feel a day late and a dollar short. I dip into and out of the great librarian blogs sporadically, and hardly ever read MEDLIB-L. Those are lame excuses, but they're true. And recently I had the additional (glorious) distraction of a wonderful vacation in Tokyo with Helen.
So all my librarian friends are already well acquainted with Harvard PhD student Anna Kushnir's famous "rant" (both her word and a word used by others) about how much she loathes searching PubMed. There are already posts about this throughout the biblioblogosphere. Nevertheless I've been so fascinated by the controversy that I can't resist adding my own voice to the fray.
Some choice quotes from Kushnir's original post: "I have spent an absurd amount of time on PubMed recently and can say in no uncertain terms that it is making my dissertation writing way more painful than it needs to be"..."I can hold a paper in my hands, search for two authors’ last names and have PubMed come up with nothing"..."Science cannot proceed at a decent clip if researchers cannot find the most basic necessary information."
From this post it is clear that Kushnir doesn't know many handy PubMed tricks, and wants it to be completely intuitive and easy to search. So do I. In a perfect world PubMed would have the simplicity of Google searching, with the rigor that comes from executing an extremely sophisticated search that involves many MeSH terms. It's not a crazy pipe dream to wish for a Google-like front end with a strong MeSH backbone.
So I see where Kushnir is coming from. Many librarians generously offered to help Kushnir in her PubMed searching needs--librarians who didn't even know her, throughout North America. This was the absolute best of librarianship, but it also proved Kushnir's point: Why should such a core database be so complex that it requires this level of intervention?
The other type of reaction, as exemplified by David Rothman, is that the user--in this case Anna Kushnir--is broken. (To be fair, David also built a Google Custom Search Engine that allows Kushnir to search PubMed via Google.) David rails against Kushnir's refusal to seek a librarian's assistance or to read PubMed's help documentation. He even runs that documentation through a Google Docs analysis to show that it is easy to understand.
In all due respect, I think David is missing the point. For starters, Kushnir was very grateful for all the offers of assistance from librarians following her post--she said so repeatedly. Her point holds nevertheless, and she explained it well in the excellent interview Dean posted with her yesterday.
To quote Kushnir at length (italics mine):
"Feel free to consider what I am about to say as ignorant or naive but keep in mind that I am a trained researcher. I have worked in labs for the last 12 years and until this "incident", I was not aware that I needed to use the expertise of medical librarians as intermediaries between myself and PubMed. Knowing this, I feel that the need for assistance in my searches defeats the purpose of an *online* search engine. Again, this is a comment only on the design of PubMed as a website not on the services available to me at the library."
Kushnir exhibits an awareness of the potential limitations on her thinking; restates her thesis; and re-emphasizes that she is not talking about librarians but rather the design of PubMed. There's no reason to be upset with her.
What is the role of librarians? To fiercely defend systems that we understand well, even if they don't meet a patron's needs? Or to seek new and better ways to meet those needs? David's post would have been a lot more congenial if he'd simply linked to the Google/PubMed custom search engine and made it available for Kushnir's use. His listing of alternate PubMed interfaces is also quite helpful.
Contrast David's reaction to that of (also David) Lipman, the director of NCBI (which makes PubMed). Lipman never criticizes Kushnir, but instead acknowledges the validity of her complaints and explains how NCBI is seeking to address them.
Again, to quote at length (this time of Lipman, and with italics for emphasis):
"Although the current engine works well for some users and some queries, I understand Anna’s frustration and we are in the midst of a number of changes that will make PubMed work better for her and many other users. One type of query she is doing – essentially a form a targeted search/citation matching – will be handled much better within the next couple of weeks. We’re putting in a CitationSensor approach that will run the default search (but one which is itself somewhat improved) but have a separate set of heuristics for picking up Anna’s type of query.
"Especially for someone writing a thesis or paper, they are often simply trying to find a particular paper, perhaps using author names, or terms from a title, or even just cutting & pasting a reference from another online paper. So this will be a big improvement for them...
"A number of these complaints are fair and we'll be doing our best to address them."