Alternatives to Google

Everyone uses Google. Patients bring preconceived ideas about their clinical conditions based on results from Google searches, changing the physician-patient dyad into an information triangle.1 So too do physicians use Google searches in their clinical practice.2 Unfortunately, health information on the internet is frequently unreliable and inaccurate.3 What’s better?

Google Scholar is a specialized search engine that scours scholarly publications in the arts and sciences from major publishers, societies, and websites. The actual scope of the dataset is not publicly available, but Google Scholar includes articles, books, chapters, theses and conference abstracts, and legal cases and has been described as “the most comprehensive academic search engine.”4  

Google Scholar is fast and simple to use and especially helpful if an adequate, although not necessarily optimal, result is acceptable, and for searching obscure topics where full-text searching would be useful.  Some handy features of the Google Scholar interface are the ability to collect citations in one’s profile “library,” access full text where available online, track publications that cite specific articles, download citations to reference management software, receive automatic search alerts, and locate related content.  

Like Google, Google Scholar search results are based on a proprietary and private algorithm. This lack of transparency means users cannot be assured that search results are free of influence by market forces or otherwise. Furthermore, search results can change unpredictably so search strategies are not reproducible. Google Scholar does not index content with a controlled vocabulary so systematic and valid search strategies cannot be applied. Search results must be scanned at great length to extract useful content. Thus, gleaning a comprehensive set of relevant results requires time-consuming scanning and critical appraisal from what may be a patchwork of relevant hits. 

Medline is a significant improvement over Google Scholar for searching medical journal articles because journals are subject to inclusion criteria based on scientific quality and relevance, and content is indexed using MeSH subject headings, which allows for systematic, reproducible and comprehensive searches of a known dataset. 

Filtering for high levels of evidence such as systematic reviews, meta-analyses and controlled trials is fast and simple. Medline is searchable through a variety of interfaces (e.g. PubMed and Ovid Medline), most of which offer a basic search feature that supports simple “Google-like” search statements that are mapped to MeSH headings and filtered to high levels of evidence automatically. 

Most, too, have advanced search functions. Similar to Google Scholar, PubMed and Ovid provide value-added features such as personalized profiles for saving searches and citations and creating search alerts, access to full text, citation downloading, and links to related content.  While many articles located by Google Scholar are behind paywalls, the College library’s e-journal subscriptions are integrated into PubMed and Ovid Medline via links on the Library’s webpage, giving free access to articles from thousands of medical journals.

The hands-on, computer-based FAST EVIDENCE workshop, taught by College librarians in collaboration with UBC CPD, can help to revitalize one’s Medline searching skills and learn about new information resources provided by the College library. The next workshops are scheduled for February and May.  

References:

  1. Huisman M, Joye S, Biltereyst D. Searching for Health: Doctor Google and the Shifting Dynamics of the Middle-Aged and Older Adult Patient-Physician Relationship and Interaction. J Aging Health. 2019 Sep 13:898264319873809.  3.1177/0898264319873809. [Epub ahead of print] PubMed PMID: 31517558.
  2. Beck JB, Tieder JS. Electronic resources preferred by pediatric hospitalists for clinical care. J Med Libr Assoc. 2015 Oct;103(4):177-83.
  3. Daraz L, Morrow AS, Ponce OJ, Beuschel B, Farah MH, Katabi A, Alsawas M, Majzoub AM, Benkhadra R, Seisa MO, Ding JF, Prokop L, Murad MH. Can Patients Trust Online Health Information? A Meta-narrative Systematic Review Addressing the Quality of Health Information on the Internet. J Gen Intern Med. 2019Sep;34(9):1884-1891.
  4. Gusenbauer M. Google Scholar to overshadow them all? Comparing the sizes of 12 academic search engines and bibliographic databases. Scientometrics. 2019 January 01;118(1):177-214. Available from: https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007%2Fs11192-018-2958-5.pdf