Post Publication Review: Librarians’ Role

On Monday I spoke to a group of physicians, hospital administrators and other medical professionals on the impact of the publishing industry on hospitals and medicine.  While I spoke about the elephant in the room, sky high subscription rates for institutions, I also spoke about the role of post publication review in medical literature.

The example I gave was Amanda Capes-Davis who comments within PubMed Commons on mistaken identities of cell lines within the medical literature and her efforts to inform readers of potential cell line problems.

I wish I had seen Melissa Rethlefsen’s PubMed Commons post when I was creating my presentation.  It is a great example of how medical librarians can examine the published literature for inconsistencies regarding the methodologies of their search of the literature when conducting research.

Melissa reviewed the article “Comparative efficacy and safety of blood pressure-lowering agents in adults with diabetes and kidney disease: a network meta-analysis.” Lancet. 2015 May 23;385(9982):2047-56. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(14)62459-4.  She and her colleagues at the University of Utah Spencer S. Eccles Health Sciences Library reviewed and tried to duplicate the authors’ Embase search strategy which the authors reported in the Appendix (pages 13-14). According to the PRISMA flow chart the authors retrieved 1,371 results (Appendix page 37).

According to Melissa,

This study highlights the need for more accurate and comprehensive reporting needed for search strategies in systematic reviews and other literature search-based research syntheses, and the need for better peer review of search strategies by information specialists/medical librarians. Though the searches in the Appendix are on face value replicable and high quality, on closer inspection, they do not in fact meet the reporting standards as outlined by PRISMA Statement items #7 and #8: “Describe all information sources in the search (e.g., databases with dates of coverage, contact with study authors to identify additional studies) and date last searched” and “Present the full electronic search strategy for at least one major database, including any limits used, such that it could be repeated.”

For me, this comment within PubMed Commons highlights the need for librarians to analyze search strategies in the literature and to speak up and set the record straight when things are not correct or there are issues of reproducibility.  Just like Amanda Capes-Davis who sheds light on cell line problems or the statisticians who questioned the math in an NEJM article (later retracted), we are subject experts and it is important that we help contribute to post publication peer review.

Medical librarians all around the world can point to examples of when a poor literature search could have saved lives or prevented injuries, death or illness.  I am not suggesting the literature review in the article by Palmer et al. could cause patient harm.  But PubMed Commons provides librarians with an avenue by which to question literature reviews presented in research.  Hopefully by highlighting questionable search strategies or corroborating effective search strategies it will lead to better use of librarians and better research all around.

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