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Should You Do Your Own Literature Searching? Part I: The Pros & Cons of Doing Your Own Literature Searching

In chatting with a physician friend the other day, I asked her how the clinical research she was conducting was going. While she said her overall research and grant writing was going well, she felt that she was probably not searching the medical literature “all that well.” She acknowledged that she should probably ask her institution’s librarians for assistance but was reluctant to do so because of time constraints and because she thought that she should be doing her own searching. I suggested, why not conduct her own search as a first cut and then ask the university librarians to complete a more comprehensive search to see if there were any papers she had missed. “I can do that?” she asked. Sure!

Later, this interchange made me think further about why anyone might be hesitant in asking librarians to conduct literature searches. I started thinking about the benefits to being self-sufficient in searching or having a librarian do the search. I came to the conclusion that it need not be an either/or decision. There are benefits to each, here’s what I came up with:

Benefits of conducting your own literature search:

  • Expertise: As a clinician, you’re the expert on your topic and can alter the search in real time in order to hone in on the information that specifically meets your needs.
  • Fast: Conducting your own literature search to answer clinical questions can be quicker and the results (or lack thereof) are immediate. Keep in mind that anything more than a cursory search will probably take much longer than anticipated.
  • Effort: In some ways it also takes less effort because there is no need to explain what you are looking for or wait for someone else.
  • Breadcrumbs: You are free to follow tangential aspects of the topic depending on what your searches find or fail to find.

Benefits to having a librarian search a topic for you:

  • Familiarity: We search Medline and other resources on an almost daily basis and are familiar with their structure and controlled vocabulary (i.e., Medical Subject Headings) or lack thereof.
  • Narrow or Broaden: Familiarity with the resources allows us to be able to quickly filter, refine and limit search topics according to your criteria or broaden searches when nothing comes up on a topic.
  • Unbiased: A search done by a librarian can provide more of an unbiased set of results because clinicians’ practice preferences are not a factor in selecting or deselecting articles.
  • Comprehensiveness: We know how different resources overlap and where they are unique and use this knowledge to conduct a more comprehensive search. And, yes, sometimes Google is on our checklist of resources!
  • Time: We don’t mind spending the time because it’s what we do.

Utilizing Medline (or other resources) as effectively as you can, to return the most relevant and/or most comprehensive results, is the other important piece of the search process. I suspect this was the part that my friend was expressing was challenging for her, not because it is difficult, but because it takes time to become familiar with the resources, their idiosyncrasies and how to best use them.

So, the next time you wonder whether or not your search is comprehensive enough or has found the most relevant articles, consider asking a librarian to conduct the same search to see if anything new comes to light.

Stay tuned for Part II on tips for getting the most from requesting a search from the library!