The Twitterverse has been abuzz with chatter about Steve Kolowich’s recent article, What students don’t know. This reports on a study of Illinois college libraries showing students ignorance of library resources, and their love of Google — Nothing new, but the report states the issue so clearly that it’s drawn much attention.

In reaction to this, Paige Jaeger has a good article suggesting that we in libraries should not dwell on the problems, but instead work on the solutions — Students are going to use Google — We should live with it,  and go from there:

Teach students to search Google, even if you don’t like it. …. If students are swimming in Google, we have to throw them a life preserver.

Jaeger cites articles that have specific ideas on how to leverage students’ Google proclivities to teach them about library resources. One by Paul Barron especially catches my attention — Teach students how to do the best possible job in Google, and then show them how much better they can do with library resources:

Using Google to Hook Students

Educators know that libraries provide access to more relevant information sources and that there are specialists in libraries who enjoy helping students with their research projects. The challenge is influencing the students to use the resources.

Students’ preference to begin their research with Google provides opportunities for educators to integrate the databases hosted in the school library into their research. After teaching a student to use the advanced search features in Google, educators can show how, with minimal modifications, Google’s advanced search syntaxes are similar to the features provided by the library’s proprietary databases. After teaching students to search using Google’s advanced search options, an effective leading question is to ask the student, “Would you like me to teach you a search method that saves you time, provides more relevant resources, and that will improve the quality of your research and earn you a higher grade?”

This approach works! Lori Donovan, a teacher-librarian at Thomas Dale High School from Chester, Va., noted: “I revised my lesson plan for teaching students how to search the Web and library databases. Students were frustrated using the Web; when we got to Gale and ABC-CLIO, their amazement in the difference of the quality of information was priceless. One student researching working women of the 1930s said, ‘Google is aggravating; I found much more in Student Resource Center.’”

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

Like a lot of people, I imagine, I had trouble sorting out the many implications of the announcement two days ago by Google that they would be acquiring Motorola Mobility. My point in this article is NOT to talk about that deal, as interesting as it is. Instead, this article is a “meta-view” of the story — Looking not at the content of the story itself, but at the process I went through in learning about it.

My first stop in looking for commentary about the Google-Motorola deal was Google News. That certainly had a lot, but the traditional journalistic articles covered there lack the nimbleness of new media sources — blogs and tweets — that are so valuable in covering fast-moving stories like this one.

Turning then to Twitter, searching on Topsy, I had much more success in teasing out the many issues that are involved in the Google-Motorola deal. The main stated reason given by Google for the acquisition is control of patents. This is certainly important, but there are many other factors that quickly become evident in looking at the Twitter stream — The sheer size of the acquisition, for one, but also the implications for Android, Apple, and the whole future of mobile. And personality comes into play, with speculations about how new CEO Larry Page seems to be shaking things up at Google. The screenshot below, of a few tweets in a Topsy search the day after the deal was announced, gives some idea of how the Twitter stream makes it easy to get an idea of the many issues involved.

The idea I want to stress here is that Twitter’s simple interface, paradoxically, makes it an excellent vehicle to present complex ideas. Taking advantage of the collective intelligence contained in a group 140-character tweets is a quick and efficient way to see the many facets of a complicated story. A recent comparison of Twitter and Google Plus brings out a related aspect of Twitter that makes it so useful for cutting through complexity: Information density — A stream of tweets like those in the screenshot below is heavily-laden with information-nuggets — Article titles and subtle spin-words added by tweeters that help see the complex pattern.

In conclusion, connecting the discussion above with Neal Gabler’s recent Blame-the-Intenet commentary — Gabler hits on Twitter as an example of how the Internet keeps us from thinking about Big Ideas. Considering how well Twitter does in bringing out multi-faceted views on a complicated subject, as shown here, I’d beg to differ — Google-Motorola is certainly not the sort of “big idea” that Gabler is talking about, but I think the power of Twitter to cut through complicated ideas to give a quick “meta-view” can be extended also to discussions of Gabler’s Big Ideas.

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

As I wrote last week, most current eBooks are linear books — Generally fiction, with some narrative non-fiction. As I was reading about that, I came across the BioBooks project, well-described in the title of the article on it that’s excerpted below: “Reinventing the College Textbook: A digital textbook project that uses a non-linear approach to learning.”

The BioBooks project is being done at Wake Forest University, by physicist Jed Macosko and biologist Dan Johnson. Macosko is interviewed by Campus Technology writer Bridget McCrea (boldface added):

Macosko: We tested out the idea of using an iPad as a textbook and then went further by making the information non-linear. Instead of going from chapter to chapter, students get to choose their own “adventure.” That’s how the BioBook was born.

McCrea: What’s the significance of non-linear books?

Macosko: Dan has spent a lot of time studying learning theory and is a neurologist himself. He understands the way the brain works. It has been shown that humans learn best when they can put facts into the order that makes the best sense to them. (more)

I’ve written before about other types of books that don’t fit into the current linear model of eBooks — Reference books and childrens’ books, as discussed by Dominique Raccah; and cookbooks, travel guides, and encyclopedias, discussed by Jakob Nielsen and Paul Biba. To that list, then, textbooks are another addition, and one whose lucrative market is likely to bring much BioBooks-like experimentation soon. As with BioBooks, much of this future development will certainly be on iPads or other tablets.

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

Interesting thoughts from Dominique Raccah, at Sourcebooks publishing, on what makes a successful eBook. In the current market, with the current technology, she says it’s mostly fiction, and some narrataive non-fiction:

What’s selling in ebooks? It’s primarily narrative … Stories seem to be at the heart of eBooks right now. Even the successful non-fiction eBooks we’re seeing skew to narrative – memoirs and biography and history. They’re all stories – and they’re all linear reading experiences. [more]

And, from Raccah’s experience at Sourcebooks, what doesn’t work in eBooks is Reference and Childrens’ books, which are notably non-linear reading experiences:

Reference is the biggest category of non-fiction and our experience at Sourcebooks is that reference is … the hardest category to get right in eBooks. At Sourcebooks, reference is highly formatted: lots of subsections, sidebars, pictures, diagrams, pull-quotes, etc. It’s highly “browseable,” “dippable,” not necessarily a linear reading experience. All the things that we put in to make the book more experiential as a printed book are the very things that are harder to replicate as an experience in an eBook. And there are so many different kinds of reference books.

The other difficult transformation area right now is children’s books (as distinct from young adult books). E-tailers’ bestsellers lists, publisher-reported data, and our own data are not suggesting strong conversion to eBooks yet for juvenile books, outside of cross-over YA. [more]

Raccah’s comments echo the ideas of Jakob Nielsen and Paul Biba, who also decry the domination of eBooks by the linear book metaphor. They note particularly the poor fit of the linear book model for cookbooks, travel guides, and encyclopedias.

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

As I’ve discussed previously, much of the strangeness of the PubMed Health-NLM-Google affair arises because NLM doesn’t seem to have an appreciation of search engine optimization (SEO), and the value of being ranked in Google.

Another aspect of this misunderstanding that came out during the NLM presentation at the recent MLA annual meeting, is that NLM is frustrated (!) that PubMed Health pages are getting a top ranking in Google because they consider the new resource to be in an uncompleted, “pre-alpha” state. Bafflingly, they apparently didn’t anticipate that Google would find the PMH pages until they were “ready.”

To anyone in the dotcom world, getting a high ranking in Google is invaluable — The Ultimate Goal, The End of the Rainbow. To them, the idea that NLM would not be celebrating (!) a high Google ranking would be hard to fathom.

I realize that government websites like NLM don’t have the nimbleness of dotcom sites, so they have trouble adapting to unexpected happenings. But, still, it’s interesting, I think, to ask how a dotcom site would handle the current PubMed-Google situation …

What would a dotcom do if they had a new site that was under development, not ready to be used by the public, and it suddenly and unexpectedly started getting high rankings in Google? I think if this happened a dotcom would drop everything else and get the site in a finished state as quickly as possible. And while they were working on this, they would inform users about their progress in getting it finished.

NLM’s response to getting a top Google ranking has been very different — From all appearances, they have done nothing different at all because of the high ranking. They are working at a slow pace to implement the new site, on some pages, but they have done nothing to inform users about their progress, and when implementation will be completed.

Beyond NLM – Building Library Discoverability with Google & SEO

My point here is not to be hypercritical of NLM. It’s rather to use NLM as an example of a more general problem in libraries. As I’ve discussed before, I think libraries should be more aware of the effect of SEO and Google on how our users find our sites.

What’s unfortunate about NLM’s reaction to Google’s ranking of PMH is that it almost appears as if they really don’t care whether users find their PMH pages or not — The pages are certainly going to be found and used more if they get a high ranking in Google, so NLM should rejoice, instead of grousing about Google finding them.

So I say the same thing to libraries in general that I say to NLM — We have good stuff! Let’s help our users find it! Taking advantage of Google and the principles of SEO to help us do this doesn’t mean we’re “in it for the money” — It just means we want to make our resources more discoverable for our users!

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

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

There’s been much questioning in the medical library community about the nature of PubMed Health (PMH), the new source from the National Library of Medicine. When it first came out, in early 2011, it seemed to be pretty much a copy of the ADAM Health Encyclopedia that’s part of Medline Plus. Before the Medical Library Association annual meeting in May, NLM staff had said little to clarify how PMH would be different.

At the MLA meeting, NLM staff said that the unique feature of PMH would be the addition of Comparative Effectiveness Research (CER) information to help consumers make health decisions. They didn’t say that adding CER information has already started, and it was only after I got back from MLA that I saw that indeed it has. I tweeted to see if anyone else had noticed this, and got only one response — PMH watcher Alisha Miles replied, saying that “limited articles” in PMH have had CER links since it launched, and that NLM is now adding more (Thx, Alisha!). I did a small random sample of 26 PMH pages and found that 6 (23%) of them have CER links.

In this article, I’m providing screenshots of PMH pages that have CER data and that don’t. Below the screenshots, I have a few comments and data on the random sampling that I did.

Here’s the PMH page for Asthma, which does have CER links, under “Evaluating your options” (lower right):

For comparison, a screenshot the Asthma page when PMH first launched in Feb, that doesn’t have CER info, is in this article.

Here’s an example of a current PMH page that does not have CER links – Sleep Disorders:

A few quick observations:

It appears that, if a page has more than five CER links (like the Asthma page above), there’s a link for “See more” CER links — For Asthma, the “See more” page has 22 total links, with a URL that ends with this:
… term=Asthma%20AND%20subject_comparative_effectiveness[sb]
This indicates that the CER links are obtained by AND’ing together the subject (Asthma) and the CER subset. Searching the CER subset by itself <subject_comparative_effectiveness[sb]> gets 252 links. This seems like a fairly small number in comparison to the total number of subjects in PMH, so I suspect that there will be considerably more CER data added.

In some cases, the indexing for CER sources may be questionable — For example: The PMH page for Brain Surgery, under Evaluating your options, has 4 links. Two of them seem doubtfully relevant – Fact sheet: Period pains and Low back pain: Can massage help?

I did the random sample by looking at the first stand-alone link (not a cross reference) in the middle column for each letter of the alphabet of the PMH alpha index.

NO – Pages do NOT have CER links – 20 pages on June 8, 2011

YES – Pages DO have CER links – 6 pages on June 8, 2011

It’s encouraging to see that NLM is beginning to give PMH an identity separate from Medline Plus. As discussed in another article, however, I hope NLM will do more to communicate the timetable of this process, and other CER features that they plan to add to PMH.

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

In his keynote talk at the recent Medical Library Association annual meeting, Clay Shirky told the story of how Wikipedia, which is done by volunteers, has far surpassed the Medpedia project, which was founded in 2009 as an expert-doctor-produced system to compete with Wikipedia. Marcus Banks’s write-up of Shirky’s talk has a good segment on this:

Skirky contrasted the entry for biopsy on Wikipedia to that for biopsy on Medpedia, which utilizes physician editors rather than the unwashed masses.  Turns out that the Wikipedia entry is much more robust and developed, a thorough introduction to the topic of biopsy available to all. On the other hand, Medpedia offers a puny paragraph and calls it a day.

In fairness, Shirky does exaggerate the contrast a bit, in not mentioning that the Medpedia article has links to five specific types of biopsy. But those other articles are relatively short, and Shirky is right that the total amount of information in Wikipedia far exceeds Medpedia. So he’s certainly correct that Wikipedia has won the battle for the general medical online information market. Searching PubMed shows it: A search for wikipedia retrieves 83 articles; a search for medpedia retrieves 0 (zero!) articles. So, indeed, Medpedia has just never caught on.

Bertalan Meskó: “I believe elitism kills content”

Shirky said in his MLA talk that he had predicted when Medpedia launched that it would be a failure (confirmed here). He also mentioned that other commentators had similar questions about the purpose of Medpedia. One of those was the prominent Hungarian physician-blogger Bertalan Meskó (@berci). He’s a Wikipedia administrator, and echoes the sentiments of Shirky in questioning the need for Medpedia at the time of its launch in 2009 (boldface added):

When we have a Wikipedia, why do we need a Medpedia? … [do] we need Medpedia to provide reliable medical content? That’s what we are working on in Wikipedia. … I believe elitism kills content. Only the power of masses controlled by well-designed editing guidelines can lead to a comprehensive encyclopaedia.

Finally, a recently-published article gives more evidence for Wikipedia’s supremacy as the king of the medical information hill – Wikipedia: A Key Tool for Global Public Health Promotion, in Journal of Medical Internet Research (2011) is written by a group of Wikipedia medical administrators (including Meskó). The authors document the important place of Wikipedia in the online health information sphere, and make an appeal for more people with medical interests to participate as Wikipedia editors. Tellingly, the corresponding author, Michaël R Laurent, has an association with Medpedia — Apparently, from his leadership in Wikipedia, though, he’s decided it’s a better way to go than Medpedia.

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

An article by Ezra Klein in the Washington Post caught my attention because Klein has caught on to the elegance of the Kindle app, especially its synched uploading of highlights and notes, that I’ve written about. I have found few other people who are talking about what a game-changing capability this is, so Klein’s giving it such an important place in his discussion of the potential of eBooks stands out (boldface added):

I don’t think we have any clear concept of how good eBooks are going to become. I wasn’t at all impressed with the first generation of eBooks, or eBook readers. When asked to review the first-generation Kindle, I reviewed it poorly and sold my device as soon as I’d finished the article. But now? I have the Kindle application on my home computer, my work computer, my iPad, and my phone. Wherever I am, my books are there, too. My place is always saved. My highlights and notes are automatically uploaded to a central Amazon server that I can access from any internet connection. I get more out of my books now, can read them in more places, can search back through them with more ease, can integrate them into my job with less hassle.

Klein doesn’t mention the Amazon tablet that’s been widely predicted to be coming out sometime in the next several months. Amazon’s dominance of eBook content combined with a strong tablet rival to Apple’s iPad, and leadership in “The Cloud” would put Amazon in a strong place in the eBook market.

Surprisingly, in the talk I’ve seen about the presumed Amazon tablet, it hasn’t been connected to the existing Kindle app. But the elegant tricks that Amazon has bundled with the Kindle app will certainly be carried over to the tablet. So if you want to see the future of eBooks, try out the Kindle App on your PC, Mac, iPhone, iPad, BlackBerry, or Android Phone.

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