PubMed Health (PMH) was launched early this year by the National Library of Medicine. As discussed in previous articles, NLM has said very little about this new resource, so I and other medical librarians were hoping that they would clear up some of the mystery surrounding it at the Medical Library Association annual meeting in May. In this article, I’ll report on what NLM sources said about PMH at MLA, which, unfortunately, was not very much.

There were two sessions at MLA where NLM had an opportunity to discuss PMH. The first one was the NLM Online Users’ Meeting, at 7 AM on Monday, which was attended by about 50-75 people. NLM staff presenting at this session were Loren Frant, who talked about Medline Plus, and David Gillikin, who talked about other NLM initiatives. Neither one of the presenters mentioned PMH (see the MLA blog for what was discussed). In the question/answer period afterward, I asked Gillikin about PMH. He acknowledged its existence, but said very little else. He said that NLM Deputy Director Betsy Humphries would talk more about it on Tuesday at the NLM Update “plenary” session.

After the NLM Users’ session I talked more to Gillikin, about NLM’s silence regarding the high Google ranking of PMH, and the controversial claim of NLM-Google collusion that has arisen from that. He indicated that the current version that’s available online is essentially a “beta version,” and that eventually PMH will have a strong emphasis on providing comparative effectiveness information for consumers and healthcare personnel. Gillikin expressed frustration that Google had given PMH pages a high ranking when it was not really in a completed state. When I pushed for him to say why NLM had not anticipated this, he said, frustratedly, “Google is a black box” — Indicating that apparently NLM has had no communication with Google about the high PMH rankings in Google searches. For the record — NLM Associate Director Sheldon Kotzin was also present at this session, although he was not a presenter. The only input he had on PMH was to confirm that there would be more information about it from Humphries at the Tuesday session.

So the stage was set for Humphries at the NLM Update on Tuesday. Although attendance at Monday’s early-bird session was small, word had gotten out, helped along by tweets, that Humphries would have more to say. Here’s the account by conference blogger Alison Aldrich on Humphries’ talk at the NLM Update:

Next came the moment many of us have been wondering about for a long time. What would NLM have to say about PubMed Health, this mysterious new site with such high prominence in Google Search results? In truth, they don’t have much to say… yet. We know its purpose is to provide health consumers with better access to systematic reviews and comparative effectiveness research. We also now know that Google released it in pre-alpha form long before NLM was ready for that to happen. [ER: See my comments on this last sentence below.]

Hopes for more information were thoroughly dashed, then — Humphries talked for less than a minute about PMH, repeating what had been said on Monday. Of the high Google ranking, she said it was a surprise for everyone at NLM, but she said nothing about why NLM has been so silent about this, or why they have not had more to say about the nature of PMH. I waited expectantly until the end of her presentation with the many questions I (and no doubt many others) have about this whole affair, but to no avail — Humphries and the other presenters took NO QUESTIONS!

The Pot calls the Kettle a Black Box?

How ironic that Gillikin called Google a Black Box when NLM itself is being so mysterious! Here was the perfect opportunity to explain their actions in the Google affair to a friendly audience, and they said nothing to answer the obvious questions:

  • Why did NLM release PubMed Health before it was ready for public use, in “pre-alpha stage”? The conference blog report says that “Google released it in pre-alpha form,” but it was not Google that “released it,” it was NLM.
  • There is certainly a precedent for Google putting NLM pages at the top of its ranking for health/disease related searches, with Google Health One Box, so why did NLM not think about the possibility of this happening with PubMed Health?
  • And finally, the most basic question (in two parts) — Does NLM care what the world thinks? Do they care that there is a blog article which is getting high rankings in Google that suggests that NLM is conspiring with the CIA? If they do care, why are they not saying something to clarify the situation? …
  • A subset of whether NLM cares — Do they care what MLA people on Twitter think? Twitter was heavily-used at MLA this year — I and several other conference attenders tweeted throughout the meeting about PubMed Health, with no response from NLM. It seems like it would be a good idea for NLM to have someone communicating on Twitter!

Since the events at MLA reported above happened in May, I’ve found that NLM does seem to be making some slow progress in adding comparative effectiveness information to PMH. It’s unclear how much this happened before MLA, and how much since. If it was happening before MLA, it’s surprising that NLM didn’t talk about it. If it has been happening more since MLA, maybe NLM was motivated by the widespread puzzlement about PMH expressed at MLA. Whichever the case may be, NLM still has a long way to go in clearing up the continuing mystery of PubMed Health.

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Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumsey AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumsey

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