The National Library of Medicine is giving a significant retooling to its PubMed search engine, and the enhancements are expected to make this venerable scientific research tool more powerful to use.
The project, called the Discovery Initiative, got fully under way in the summer of 2005, and users will see improvements to the website this year, said David Lipman, director of the library’s National Center for Biotechnology Information.
The goal is to make it easier for users to uncover information related to their query, which may remain harder to spot with the current system.
“You’ll see over the next year some significant changes in it, not so much to make it easier to use but to make it easier to make more discoveries with it,” he said.
This is great news for Dean Giustini, reference librarian at the Biomedical Branch Library of the Vancouver Hospital & Health Sciences Centre in British Columbia.
“Many life sciences researchers find PubMed difficult to use. It’s a database that, although you can get instant literature fairly quickly, to use all of the functionality, even librarians have some challenges keeping up,” Giustini said.
A person who finds a record on PubMed and clicks on it may not necessarily see a treasure trove of other documents and data that are linked to it, Lipman said. That will soon change.
“You have to poke around to see that [related information],” he said. “What we’ll do instead is, using computational tools, poke around for you and then put [the related information] right on the record.”
Lipman and his team have sought advice from Google, Microsoft’s MSN team and Amazon’s A9 search engine unit, and they have more carefully analyzed usage patterns on the PubMed website.
The work has been focused initially on re-engineering PubMed’s back end, so that improvements to the front end can be then be implemented, Lipman said. Other improvements are still being discussed and planned, he said.
As it is right now, PubMed has enjoyed great success. It processes about 70 million queries every month. About 2.25 terabytes of data are downloaded from the site every day. But Lipman isn’t satisfied.
“I find it very frustrating because we’ve connected up the scientific information in very precise and powerful ways,” Lipman said. “And yet very few of our users do more than very simple things with our site. It’s as if [they say], ‘That’s enough, I found the answer I’m looking for and I’m done.’ And we want them to find answers to questions they didn’t even know they had.”