Failure to Connect Somewhere
My mom would sometimes say, "If you can't say anything nice, then don't say anything at all." She often said this while my my brother, sister and I were squabbling at each other over something. There is only 4 years separating the oldest from the youngest so while we could be the best of friends we could easily be the worst of enemies and our sibling sense of justice demanded that we each got our fare share of zingers in at the others' expense.
After all these years and 600 miles away from home I heard my mom's voice in my head say that exact phrase on Friday after I read the posts MEDLIB-l and the comments on Nature Network about Harvard PhD student Anna Kushnir's hatred of PubMed post. It took a weekend of working on two projects to understand that Anna's post doesn't represent her lack of knowledge, it represents a failure to connect.
Anna is a PhD student, not a high school student or an undergraduate student. She has gone through many years of school where she would have had to go to a library to do some sort of research at some point in her life. However, somewhere in that whole long educational process we (librarians) failed to connect with Anna. We failed to impress upon her that she should (and that it is ok) to ask a librarian for research help.
In one of her comments Anna said, "I don't think I should have to be, or enlist the services of, a medical librarian in order to do a simple search on a literature search engine. PubMed should be an intuitive search engine such as Google, or others. I don't know of many researchers, either MDs or PhDs, who have had extensive training in computer science or search algorithms."
David Rothman writes about Anna's complete unwillingness (almost to absurdity) to ask for help from a librarian (at Harvard no less) or look at help documents (easily found on PubMed's site) and it led him to the conclusion that PubMed isn't broken in this instance, it is the user. While I think Anna has a naive arrogance about her knowledge as a Harvard PhD student, I think more than the user is broken. I think the system is broken.
Anna is just one name of the countless number of researchers that we have failed to reach. Don't forget the horrible event at Johns Hopkins that led to the death of a healthy 24 year old woman. Dr. Alkis Togias, made "a good-faith effort" to research the drug's adverse effects, but failed to enlist the help of a librarian to look further in the literature about the drug, possibly preventing the tragic event. There are countless examples of how librarians can help researchers and doctors save time, money, and lives, yet there are also countless examples of researchers and doctors who have wasted time (at best) or lives (at worst) because they failed to ask for help from a librarian.
Clearly Anna's rant just further illustrates how librarians from well funded institutional libraries can even miss people. I don't know how we fix the system, but we need to look at ways to do that. I keep thinking of all the things that the Anna's of the world are missing out on and to that extent what kind of research or cures the rest of the world missing out on as well.