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March 17, 2005

New library tool aids medical researchers

The Health Sciences Library System (HSLS) has developed an interactive educational module on the Internet to make biomedical literature searches more thorough.

“The Responsible Literature Searching for Research” shows clinical researchers how to locate scientific literature for producing sound research studies and protecting human subjects from harm, according to library officials.

“With the explosion of information resources, it’s difficult for researchers to keep track and know how to reach every single resource,” said Barbara Epstein, HSLS director.

One of the goals of the new module is to enhance literature searches for drug safety to prevent harm to research subjects, according to Charles Wessel, author of the module’s contents and coordinator of affiliated hospital services at HSLS.

The module was inspired, in part, by the death of a healthy research subject at Johns Hopkins University in 2001. The volunteer inhaled a drug known, in some scientific literature, to be harmful to humans.

“When investigating this unfortunate event, it became evident that many researchers who perform literature searches have little guidance about what constitutes an appropriate or sufficient search in support of human subject research,” said Wessel.

In a “googlized” world, it’s possible for researchers to miss information and misjudge the breadth of an Internet search. “Over the last five years with desktop access and more search engines, a lot of people think they can understand subtleties of search terms and vocabulary,” said Epstein. But that’s not always the case. For example, the exact search term might turn up different results in different databases. “There’s a lot of research tools out there, to just have an understanding of they function adds another burden on the researchers,” she explained.

HSLS’s answer to the research dilemma was to develop the interactive module. Library officials say HSLS might be the first organization to develop a comprehensive program providing guidelines for researchers on conducting a thorough literature search.

The project was funded by the Association of Academic Health Sciences Libraries through a cooperative agreement between the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) and the Office of Research Integrity (ORI), Department of Health and Human Services.

“One of the wonderful advantages researchers have here is the collection of electronic resources in HSLS, which is one of the most expensive in the country in health sciences libraries,” said Epstein. HSLS spends several million dollars annually acquiring information resources, she added.

But the vast array of resources is a blessing and a challenge, Epstein said. “There’s so many resources and researchers need to know how to use them.”

The interactive module tries to set up guidelines for researchers to consider what literature resources are available and why researchers should consider them. Researchers are also encouraged to contact HSLS reference librarians for help.

“The module helps you focus and narrow all the things you need to think about when you are putting a research protocol together,” said Nancy Tannery, associate director for information services at HSLS.

The module is available at

—Mary Ann Thomas

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