Thursday, June 19, 2008

PubMed Frustrations

Yesterday PubMed went down. I am not a usual PubMed searcher. My MOC (Medline Of Choice) is Ovid, so I didn't notice the problem immediately. However, I began to field a number of calls from patrons regarding our full text journal links in PubMed not working. Two other librarians also started to notice some odd things occurring as well. Initially it appeared as if it was an issue specific to LinkOut and using Serials Solutions as the outside tool. Only after further investigation and a call to Serials Solutions support did we discover that it was a larger problem with PubMed. Apparently PubMed's servers went down at 1:00am that morning.

As usual the the emails started coming in from Medlib-l regarding PubMed. Librarians from different areas of the United States asking about the health status of PubMed as they too noticed it doing funky things. There was a brief discussion and some questions raised on Twitter Medlibs about what to do if PubMed goes down and you don't have access to Ovid. What do you do, where do you send patrons? Would third party tools work?

PubMed is free. PubMed is available to all. When it goes down, it is felt by a great many people. That is why it absolutely puzzles me to no end that PubMed can't even send out an email or post a note on their site that they are having difficulties. A simple note so that the various people around the world know that it is not their library, their institution, or their searching skills, that are causing the problem. Remember in order for us to find out it was a PubMed problem not our problem or our outside tool problem, a second party (in this case Serials Solutions) had to tell us. We are a medical library, we should be informed. We shouldn't have to find out from another company or ask other librarians via email whether it is working. There should be an obvious note on the site when there is an outage or if there are problems.

Yesterday, problems surfaced because of server malfunctions, an unplanned event. However, how many times has PubMed changed something internally and librarians were left scrambling to figure out why their settings changed, why their icons were no longer displaying, or other odd things? About 2 years ago at my previous job, I purposely held off activating the outside tool feature in PubMed for a while because at the time there were quite a few emails being sent regarding PubMed's problem handling of icons.

Just because PubMed is a free doesn't excuse their lack of communication. PubMed has become the premiere tool for many librarians, researchers, students, etc. to search the biomedical literature. They should notify their customers of outages.

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At 11:50 PM, Blogger j- said...

Hey, you get what you pay for.

We had one person send a request to our IT help desk about this. We got in the next morning and had no idea what they were talking about, as it had been fixed by then.

I see no real need for uproar/outrage though--sometimes things on the Internet stop working.

Usually the simplest solution is wait and/or come back later. In our case, the library was closed so there was no one to offer this sage advice to the user.

At 10:20 AM, Blogger The Krafty Librarian said...

I respectfully disagree. You get what you pay for is a poor excuse for a product that now is essential for online research.

This happened at 1am, I started getting calls from patrons 8:30/9:00. It still wasn't working at 11:00am. That is at least 11 hours of problems without a message to users.

People at our hospital won't and don't wait. We have over 1800 physicians alone just at the main campus. That doesn't include our biomed. research staff. I worked the ref. desk and was phone back up from 9-11 and almost every other call was about this problem. It also effected our ILL staff because they could not verify requests that came in w/o PMIDs.

We spent a lot of time trying to help patrons around this and a lot of time on the phone and online diagnosing this issue.

We cannot sit around and wait to find out if it is an issue with PubMed or if it something we can and must fix. Because if it is something that we can and should fix we cannot afford to be down for very long. Not knowing why we are down is a huge problem.

At 11:38 AM, Blogger Jeff said...

Amen sister! If PubMed wants us to use the database, then fix it when it goes down. Right now, I have to call someone not affiliated with PubMed to get anything done. There is no phone number to call anyone when there's an issue. I have a contact name to send an email to, but it's taken me years to get that. You're right, lousy communication is no excuse.

At 12:25 PM, Blogger DonnaBerryman said...

In the May 2008 issue of MLA News is this information (pg 8):

"National Library of Medicine Initiates PubMed Alerts

"The National Library of Medicine (NLM) now provides an email notification service, PubMed Alerts, that notifies subscribers of major system problems with PubMed; its two companion databases, Medical Subject Headings (MeSH) and Journals; and the NLM Catalog. If these databases have a significant service disruption affecting all or most users for a considerable amount of time, an alert will be issued. Alerts providing update and resolution information about a problem will be sent if warranted. To subscribe, send an email to [email protected] Leave the subject line blank and enter SUBSCRIBE pubmed-alerts your name in the body of the message."

Interesting, don't you think? I am subscribed to the PubMed Alerts list and NLM posted nothing. I guess everything depends on how they define "significant service disruption affecting all or most users" and "considerable amount of time."

I totally agree with you. NLM should be posting notifications when something isn't working properly.

At 4:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't particularly like Pubmed for searching since I find it extremely clunky for complex searches--all those brackets within brackets gets tedious. Letting Pubmed "do it itself" results in some peculiar results--more so with their "improvements".

I do get the strangest ILL requests from doctors who do PubMed searches and come up with articles from the 60s and 70s. Usually I find out that they tried to do a search by putting in a phrase and wound up with strange results. I do a search and find dozens of more current relevant articles. Sigh! I like independence but someone expert in surgery isn't necessarily expert in everything--especially searching!

They keep tinkering with PubMed trying to "solve" this but it just gets worse--lots and lots of bad answers instead of just 10-20. Notice that no where on PubMed does it suggest that the person searching might want to consult a librarian.

At 10:47 AM, Anonymous jessie said...

If you hate the pubmed web interface (as do I) you should try the new tool PubSearch, available on the Mac. It's a much faster, more efficient experience. You can find it at PubSearch


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The Krafty Librarian has been a medical librarian since 1998. She is currently the medical librarian for a hospital system in Ohio. You can email her at: