Problems with Disappearing Set Numbers in PubMed’s Clinical Queries

18 10 2010

In some upcoming posts I will address various problems related to the changing interfaces of bibliographic databases.

We, librarians and end users, are overwhelmed by a flood of so-called upgrades, which often fail to bring the improvements that were promised….. or which go hand-in-hand with temporary glitches.

Christina of Christina’s Lis Rant even made rundown of the new interfaces of last summer. Although she didn’t include OVID MEDLINE/EMBASE, the Cochrane Library and Reference manager in her list, the total number of changed interfaces reached 22 !

As a matter of fact, the Cochrane Library was suffering some outages yesterday, to repair some bugs. So I will postpone my coverage of the Cochrane bugs a little.

And OVID send out a notice last week: This week Ovid will be deploying a software release of the OvidSPplatform that will add new functionality and address improvements to some existing functionality.”

In this post I will confine myself to the PubMed Clinical Queries. According to Christina PubMed changes “were a bit ago”, but PubMed continuously tweaks  its interface, often without paying much attention to its effects.

Back in July, I already covered that the redesign of the PubMed Clinical Queries was no improvement for people who wanted to do more than a quick and dirty search.

It was no longer possible to enter a set number in the Clinical Queries search bar. Thus it wasn’t possible to set up a search in PubMed first and to then enter the final set number in the Clinical Queries. This bug was repaired promptly.

From then on, the set number could be entered again in the clinical queries.

However, one bug was replaced by another: next, search numbers were disappearing from the search history.

I will use the example I used before: I want to know if spironolactone reduces hirsutism in women with PCOS, and if it works better than cyproterone acetate.

Since little is published about this topic,  I only search for  hirsutism and spironolactone. These terms  map correctly with  MeSH terms. In the MeSH database I also see (under “see also”) that spironolactone belongs to the aldosterone antagonists, so I broaden spironolactone (#2) with “Aldosterone antagonists”[pharmacological Action] using “OR” (set #7). My last set (#8) consists of #1 (hirsutism) AND #7 (#2 OR #6)

Next I go to the Clinical Queries in the Advanced Search and enter #8. (now possible again).

I change the Therapy Filter from “broad”  to “narrow”, because the broad filter gives too much noise.

In the clinical queries you see only the first five results.

Apparently even the clinical queries are now designed to just take a quick look at the most recent results, but of course, that is NOT what we are trying to achieve when we search for (the best) evidence.

To see all results for the narrow therapy filter I have to go back to the Clinical Queries again and click on see all (27) [5]

A bit of a long way about. But it gets longer…


The 27 hits, that result from combining the Narrow therapy filter with my search #8 appears. This is set #9.
Note it is a lower number than set #11 (search + systematic review filter).

Meanwhile set #9 has disappeared from my history.

This is a nuisance if I want to use this set further or if I want to give an overview of my search, i.e. for a presentation.

There are several tricks by which this flaw can be overcome. But they are all cumbersome.

1. Just add set number (#11 in this case, which is the last search (#8) + 3 more) to the search history (you have to remember the search set number though).

This is the set number remembered by the system. As you see in the history, you “miss” certain sets. #3 to #5 are for instance are searches you performed in the MeSH-database, which show up in the History of the MeSH database, but not in PubMed’s history.

The Clinical query set number is still there, but it doesn’t show either. Apparently the 3 clinical query-subsets yield a separate set number, whether the search is truly performed or not. In this case  #11 for (#8) AND systematic[sb], #9 for (#8) AND (Therapy/Narrow[filter]). And #10 for (#8) AND the medical genetics filter.

In this way you have all results in your history. It isn’t immediately clear, however, what these sets represent.

2. Use the commands rather than going to the clinical queries.

Thus type in the search bar: #8 AND systematic[sb]

And then: #8 AND (Therapy/Narrow[filter])

It is easiest to keep all filters in Word/Notepad and copy/paste each time you need the filter

3. Add clinical queries as filters to your personal NCBI account so that the filters show up each time you do a search in PubMed. This post describes how to do it.

Anyway these remain just tricks to try to make something right that is wrong.

Furthermore it makes it more difficult to explain the usefulness of the clinical queries to doctors and medical students. Explaining option 3 takes too long in a short course, option 1 seems illogical and 2 is hard to remember.

Thus we want to keep the set numbers in the history, at least.

A while ago Dieuwke Brand notified the NLM of this problem.

Only recently she received an answer saying that:

we are aware of the continuing problem.  The problem remains on our programmers’ list of items to investigate.  Unfortunately, because this problem appears to be limited to very few users, it has been listed as a low priority.

Only after a second Dutch medical librarian confirmed the problem to the NLM, saying it not only affects one or two librarians, but all the students we teach (~1000-2000 students/university/yearly), they realized that it was a more widespread problem than Dieuwke Brand’s personal problem. Now the problem has a higher priority.

Where is the time that a problem was taken for what it was? As another librarian sighed: Apparently something is only a problem if many people complain about it.

Now I know this (I regarded Dieuwke as a delegate of all Dutch Clinical Librarians), I realize that I have to “complain” myself, each time I and/or my colleagues encounter a problem.

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Adding Methodological Filters to MyNCBI

26 11 2009

Idea: Arnold Leenders
Text: “Laika”

Methodological Search Filters can help to narrow down a search by enriching for studies with a certain study design or methodology. PubMed has build-in methodological filters, the so called Clinical Queries for domains (like therapy and diagnosis) and for evidence based papers (like theSystematic Review subset” in Pubmed). These searches are often useful to quickly find evidence on a topic or to perform a CAT (Critical Appraised Topic). More exhaustive searches require broader  filters not incorporated in PubMed. (See Search Filters. 1. An Introduction.).

The Redesign of PubMed has made it more difficult to apply Clinical Queries after a search has been optimized. You can still go directly to the clinical queries (on the front page) and fill in some terms, but we rather advise to build the strategy first, check the terms and combine your search with filters afterwards.

Suppose you would like to find out whether spironolactone effectively reduces hirsutism in a female with PCOS (see 10+ 1 Pubmed Tips for Residents and their Instructors, Tip 9). You first check that the main concepts hirsutism and spironactone are o.k. (i.e. they map automatically with the correct MeSH). Applying the clinical queries at this stage would require you to scroll down the page each time you use them.

Instead you can use filters in My NCBI for that purpose. My NCBI is your (free) personal space for saving searches, results, PubMed preferences, for creating automatic email alerts and for creating Search Filters.
The My NCBI-option is at the upper right of the PubMed page. You first have to create a free account.

To activate or create filters, go to [1] My NCBI and click on [2] Search Filters.

Since our purpose is to make filters for PubMed, choose [3] PubMed from the list of NCBI-databases.

Under Frequently Requested Filters you find the most popular Limit options. You can choose any of the optional filters for future use. This works faster than searching for the appropriate limit each time. You can for instance use the filter for humans to exclude animals studies.

The Filters we are going to use are under “Browse Filters”, Subcategory Properties….

….. under Clinical Queries (Domains, i.e. therapy) and Subsets (Systematic Review Filters)

You can choose any filter you like. I choose the Systematic Review Filter (under Subsets) and the Therapy/Narrow Filter under  Clinical Queries.

In addition you can add custom filters. For instance you might want to add a sensitive Cochrane RCT filter, if you perform broad searches. Click Custom Filters, give the filter a name and copy/paste the search string you want to use as filter.

Control via “Run Filter” if the Filter works (the number of hits are shown) and SAVE the filter.

Next you have to activate the filters you want to use. Note there is a limit of five 15 filters (including custom filters) that can be selected and listed in My Filters. [edited: July 5th, hattip Tanya Feddern-Bekcan]

Under  My Filters you now see the Filters you have chosen or created.

From now on I can use these filters to limit my search. So lets go to my original search in “Advanced Search”. Unfiltered, search #3 (hirsutism  AND spironolactone) has 197 hits.

When you click on the number of hits you arrive at the results page.
At the right are the filters with the number of results of your search combined with these filters (between brackets).

When you click at the Systematic Reviews link you see the 11 results, most of them very relevant. Filters (except the Custom Filters) can be appended to the search (and thus saved) by clicking the yellow + button.

Each time you do a search (and you’re logged in into My NCBI)  the filtered results are automatically shown at the right.

Clinical Queries zijn vaak handig als je evidence zoekt of een CAT (Critical Appraised Topic) maakt. In de nieuwe versie van PubMed zijn de Clinical Queries echter moeilijker te vinden. Daarom is het handig om bepaalde ‘Clinical Queries’ op te nemen in ‘My NCBI’. Deze queries bevinden zich onder Browse Filters (mogelijkheid onder Search Filters)

Het is ook mogelijk speciale zoekfilters te creëeren, zoals b.v. het Cochrane highly sensitive filter voor RCT’s. Dit kan onder Custom Filters.

Controleer wel via ‘Run Filter” of het filter werkt en sla het daarna op.

Daarna moet je het filter nog activeren door het hokje aan te vinken. Dus je zou alle filters van de ‘Clinical study category’ kunnen opnemen en deze afhankelijk van het domein van de vraag kunnen activeren.

Zo heb je altijd alle filters bij de hand. De resultaten worden automatisch getoond (aan de rechterkant).

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PubMed Changes at the Front Door

1 04 2009

pubmed-logoThis blog has repeatedly discussed the recent and upcoming changes to PubMed (see links below). I didn’t try to hide that I was not impressed with -nor very fond of- most of the changes. But despite these feelings, shared by many (librarians?), the introduced changes are there to stay, whereas the announced changes are about to be implemented…… SOON, VERY SOON!

The most salient changes are the disappearance of the Single Citation Matcher, the Tabs (Limit, Preview/Index, Clipboard, History, etc.) and the Blue Side Bar. Full text icons are already gone (i.e. the green page icon indicating free full text).

Factually, this means that in a short while you can only use the Advanced Search. It will no longer be optional. Besides the shortcomings of this feature (see previous posts), it will also mean that a complex search (when you need to look up MeSH) will take much longer. As discussed before, using “The Index of Fields in the Advanced Search” is not very suitable for this purpose.

As you may know, multi-word terms words are now split and separately searched in all fields instead of searched as one term in title and abstract (ATM or Automatic Term Mapping)* or as Michelle Kraft of the Krafty Librarian” describes it: ATM is basically just Googlizing the search process.

To get a complete picture of the upcoming changes, I recommend the excellent post of Michelle Kraft describing all these changes in detail (see here).
Michelle also refers to two valuable information sources:

To be honest, I fear the upcoming changes. Personally, I already switched to the OVID interface to search MEDLINE, but I’m afraid of how it will affect the search courses we give and the way the patrons will search PubMed. Given the past experiences (usage of wrong MeSH, too easy use of limits, no use of Clinical Queries), I’m not very confident about it.

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Note: *the mapping process with MeSH terms remains unchanged.

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