Subject searching and subjective searching – search skills training

I recently attended a workshop on literature search skills held by the Thames Valley & Wessex Search Skills Group, who provide support and training for library staff involved with literature searching in the area. These meetings are an opportunity for participants to exchange experiences and techniques of searching for a selected topic, brush up on skills and learn about different approaches. It was especially aimed at those who are new to searching or to the NHS.

The workshop was full of useful information, both in terms of new knowledge and reassurance that my searching is ok! And it was great to meet health librarians from around the region – I’m fairly sure health librarians are universally lovely, from my experiences so far. It was particularly nice to meet other NHS-newbies, and to learn I’m not the only one new to this.

There were about ten of us attending the workshop. We were all given the same topic to search for in advance of the session, and we sent our results to be compiled and discussed during the session. The topic was a real literature search request, and our results were compared with the requester’s top ten. We also brought along our search strategies and shared our approaches as a group.

The topic we were asked to search was: Are there any published case studies which illustrate the clinical and ethical issues of managing pregnancies that originated through fertility tourism, specifically UK patients seeking egg donation abroad? *

The discussion was fascinating. Despite a lot of us using subject descriptors, a controlled language, our search approaches and subsequent selection of ‘most relevant’ results were very different and incredibly subjective.

Looking at the list of results it was interesting to see ones that had come up in my own search, but I hadn’t included in the set I sent in. What made me think they weren’t top 5-10 and someone else think they were? Likewise, a lot of the results we selected in the group weren’t to be found in the reader’s top ten.

It got me quite worried – what am I missing when I do a search?!

So how to counter this problem? It’s helpful to get colleagues to check your search if you want a second viewpoint. We tend to do this if we’re struggling to find much out there, or if we’ve been asked to find all the evidence out there on a topic, such as for a systematic review. Usually, however, our literature search requesters are after a quick answer or an overview of the evidence, so it becomes less of an issue.

A useful tool that was recommended, which I will be making use of from now on, is GoPubMed, the statistics from which displays a summary of top subjects, authors, journals, and years of publication for a topic. I’ll be using it as a way to identify further keywords mid-search, or to narrow down to a particular journal, for example.

I really enjoyed the workshop. I gained a lot of knowledge from this workshop, and it served to reassure me in my own search techniques. I’ll definitely put into practice much of what I learned.

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