Putting Google in its place

A question commonly posed to the College librarians is “I use Google. It that okay?” Google’s simple search page and retrieval of what is often “good enough” information makes for an appealing gateway to medical literature. But is it good enough to support clinical decision making? 

Google (www.google.ca) potentially searches any material on the web but, without editorial control, critical evaluation of results is essential. Google Scholar (scholar.google.com) limits its search to scholarly material but does not make clear the breadth of that subset. Google indexes documents word for word, which can be very useful when searching for obscure subjects or topics discussed briefly in the text of a document. However, filtering the search results for high-quality material such as systematic reviews and randomized controlled trials can be haphazard and time-consuming. Search results are sorted by proprietary algorithms, notably page rank, which assigns importance based on the number and quality of other Internet sites that link to the document. This ranking process has contributed greatly to Google’s success—relevant material tends to appear in the first few hits. However, the same ranking process causes new material to appear deep in the result list. Google does not search web-based databases like PubMed in real time so MEDLINE citations may not be the most recent.

PubMed, one of several interfaces that search MEDLINE, is a good example of a resource that can consistently retrieve valid and relevant information with a minimum amount of effort. The article information that PubMed searches is part of a clearly defined database of peer-reviewed journal content that is indexed for access by subject headings as well as text words. Mastery of the medical subject heading (MeSH) vocabulary is not essential as PubMed maps the search statement to subject headings “behind the scenes,” often resulting in reasonably precise and sensitive results. Search results are displayed chronologically so the most recent research is displayed first. A “clinical queries” tool filters results to identify systematic reviews and other high-quality material. The link to PubMed on the College Library’s web site is specially constructed to ensure that College members link to the Library’s full-text electronic journals in their PubMed search results.

So use Google, but do so critically and not exclusively. Start your searches in resources that lead to evidence-based information created from critical appraisals of systematic searches of the literature, such as Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, PIER (ACP’s Physician Information and Education Resource), and MEDLINE, using PubMed, Ovid or other search interfaces. Include Google to capture documents other than journal articles or to discover that gem floating out there on the web that escaped your initial search of high-quality resources. 

—Linda Clendenning
—Karen MacDonell
—Judy Neill

Linda Clendenning, Karen MacDonell, PhD, MLIS, Judy Neill. Putting Google in its place. BCMJ, Vol. 49, No. 5, June, 2007, Page(s) 277 - College Library.

Above is the information needed to cite this article in your paper or presentation. The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) recommends the following citation style, which is the now nearly universally accepted citation style for scientific papers:
Halpern SD, Ubel PA, Caplan AL, Marion DW, Palmer AM, Schiding JK, et al. Solid-organ transplantation in HIV-infected patients. N Engl J Med. 2002;347:284-7.

About the ICMJE and citation styles

The ICMJE is small group of editors of general medical journals who first met informally in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1978 to establish guidelines for the format of manuscripts submitted to their journals. The group became known as the Vancouver Group. Its requirements for manuscripts, including formats for bibliographic references developed by the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM), were first published in 1979. The Vancouver Group expanded and evolved into the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE), which meets annually. The ICMJE created the Recommendations for the Conduct, Reporting, Editing, and Publication of Scholarly Work in Medical Journals to help authors and editors create and distribute accurate, clear, easily accessible reports of biomedical studies.

An alternate version of ICMJE style is to additionally list the month an issue number, but since most journals use continuous pagination, the shorter form provides sufficient information to locate the reference. The NLM now lists all authors.

BCMJ standard citation style is a slight modification of the ICMJE/NLM style, as follows:

  • Only the first three authors are listed, followed by "et al."
  • There is no period after the journal name.
  • Page numbers are not abbreviated.

For more information on the ICMJE Recommendations for the Conduct, Reporting, Editing, and Publication of Scholarly Work in Medical Journals, visit www.icmje.org

BCMJ Guidelines for Authors

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