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MEDLINE: A Guide to Effective Searching

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MEDLINE: A Guide to Effective Searching. Edited by Katcher BS (Pp147; $29.00) US: Ashbury Press, 1999. ISBN 0 9673445 0 6.

Many specialist registrars embarking on a period of research are faced with the task of writing grant proposals requiring a comprehensive understanding of a subject, but often begin from a point of relative ignorance. The first port of call for many will be to delve into MEDLINE, a vast bibliographic database indexing over 4000 journals. Now freely accessible through the internet, MEDLINE can be used to search for subject information in what appears at the outset to be a deceptively simplistic way. However, as many users of this database will know, finding the exact information you require can prove both time consuming and unrewarding, generating large amounts of inappropriate references to the subject in question. This is a reflection not of the inadequacies of the MEDLINE database but of the method of searching being employed by the researcher.

Successful searching requires knowledge of the vocabulary and grammar developed for querying such a database. Brian Katcher's book provides the reader with such knowledge, relevant not only to MEDLINE, but bibliographic databases organised in a similar format, sparing the reader from many hours of fruitless searching. The opening chapter provides a brief historical introduction as to how MEDLINE was conceived and the way in which data are indexed, a key to understanding the most efficient way of extracting relevant information.

The novice user of MEDLINE will in most cases begin searching using text or keywords, often generating a list of references that is simply too long to read. Chapter two takes the reader through the different fields or indexes that can be used when searching and details how the long list of references obtained can be systematically fine tuned using combinations of these. Particular emphasis is placed on the usefulness of Medical Subject Headings (MeSH), an underlying theme of the book, as an initial means of searching, and useful hints are given to direct the reader to the MeSH headings most appropriate to the information they require.The book concludes by setting out some standard approaches to effective searching using information learned in an initial search strategy to direct subsequent avenues of enquiry. In addition it gives useful hints on the framing of questions in order to get results most appropriate to the topic of enquiry.

MEDLINE contains a vast array of information and perhaps Brian Katcher's most useful tip is to start with books, pencil, and paper. His book is an informative read, most useful to those who are relative novices to using MEDLINE. It is presented in an easy style and without doubt will guide the reader to more “effective searching” of bibliographic databases.

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