A look at (free) medical and scientific search tools

February 6, 2009 at 8:58 pm 4 comments

Seed Newsvine

I used to use the same little stable of search engines to find what I need on the Web (such as PubMed, Journalseek, a metasearch engine, occasionally Google…). But now I’ve been turned on to a host more search engines that are sweet to use, easier on the eye and deliver as good, if not better, results.

Why bother looking into search engines?

There is no denying it, Web 2.0 has changed the way we use the Internet. We spend more time on-line because more of our resources are on-line. With more resources on-line, there is more to filter through to find our chosen nuggets of vital information. Therefore, tools that make searching easier and faster have got to be a bonus.

Search engines are not infallible. They will miss some sites and some articles. To ensure that we’ve done the best search, it may be worth using more than one search engine, trying synonyms, or looking at a search from a different angle. Paid for search tools/databases (like EMBASE, Scopus and Ovid) can help fill some gaps but (unless your institution or company has a subscription) this route can be expensive and not without problems (for example, see the Librarian’s Rx blog on OvidSP’s basic search). Another consideration is that sometimes we are not looking for a scholarly article but for something less tangible – an idea or inspiration, perhaps, which might be found in a video clip, a blog or a news article. Therefore, creative searching strategies with more than one search engine can often help find those elusive ‘ideas’.

The experts are the medical librarians

There are a large number of search engines out there. To help me understand a little about searching in science and medicine, I found help from the experts. These seem to be the medical librarians and those that need particular acknowledgement include Emerging Technologies Librarian, Patricia Anderson for tips on searching, Margaret Henderson at Virginia Commonwealth University for her article on PubMed search engines, library technical specialist Hope Leman (particularly her articles about life science search engines and the Altsearch engine blog’s Top 10 health search engines of 2008) and David Rothman (http://davidrothman.net), who writes a blog “exploring Medical Librarianship and Web geekery”. In addition, although it also mentions paid-for search engines, a preview version of Acharaya et al. 2008 paper, which reviewed 21 search engines, provided further insights.

Some useful search engines

Although it contains nearly 100 search tools, the table shown here is a “work in progress”, so any tips about other engines and comments will be gratefully received. In the table, the search engines have been given a category (general, general medical and medical/science, for example). The categorisations are basic and relatively arbitrary. At the time of compilation, the links to search engines/directories worked; those that did not work, such as the link for Alibaba, are not included in the table.

The descriptions of the search engines are usually taken from the website’s “about” description. However, where search engines were shy of descriptions and I have cobbled one together. In other cases, a succinct description or comment is taken from that provided by a reviewer (e.g. altsearchengines or Margaret Henderson’s descriptions that I can not improve upon).

To view the table of medical and scientific Internet search tools, click on the link below. It is best viewed in full screen mode. You should be able to hyperlink to the websites from the embedded document. Remember to click on the back button of your browser to return here.

Medical and scientific search tools

Given the rapid developments in search engine technology and availability, periodic reviews of the search engines we use may be useful. The overall table provided here is a starting point but, importantly, as stated before, it should be viewed as a work in progress.

Other learnings are that we should test out new engines. A key engine to test is Mednar, which is the number 1 medical search engine in Hope Leman’s top 10 health search engines of 2008 at Altsearchengines.com. In addition, given that there are  several variants on PubMed its best to try them before plumping for one to use regularly. The kind of engines you use will probably be based on personal preference and your most usual search strategy. For more information about search strategies, try Yale Medical School’s  informative videos, a summary of which is found here.

Using more than one search engine for each search you do may prove valuable. When using different search engines, choose ones with different formats, for example, for ‘general’ searches, choose one with a list of results (like Google or Ixquick), one with a map of results (like Grokker or Kartoo), a table of results (like EBIMed) and one with a alternative graphic representation of results (like MedStory). A key advantage of the different formats is that they: “allow us to see beyond the ‘top ten’ [results of a search] and expose[s] the depth and quality of the search results.”

You can customise some search engines to suit you (such as Soolve). If you’re a radiologist, for example, you’ll probably want to search images more frequently than some other specialities, therefore a customised engine focused on flickr, youtube and other image sharing sites may be appropriate for you. If you want to search through patents, then Scitopia may be useful. For molecular biology searches, BioHunt or GoPubMed might be good options.

PubReMiner has some features that may help identify the best in which journal to publish your article. Kfinder can even suggest a list of keywords for your article and putative reviewers. Engines focused on authors (such as Author-ity and Authoratory) may help identify key opinion leaders for speaker bureaus. For those dependent on grants, Scan Grants allows searchs for grants and scholarships (in the US).

Use synonyms, or use a search engine that automatically chooses synonyms for you, such as metasearch tools like the TRIP database; view a Yale University School of Medicine video on the TRIP database for more information.

With regards pure literature searches, Acharya et al. conclude that, for good coverage and relevance of search results, PubMed, Google Scholar and HighWire Press performed well (of the free search engines). GoPubMed performed well with regard results based on the MeSH and gene ontology terms.

Other tips to make searching on-line more efficient
Experiment with different search strategies. If you want to make your search more focused using quotation marks helps immediately. Patricia Anderson has plenty more tips in a slide show.
If you want to set up regular searches of Medline or journals you can collect together all the results in a news aggregator, such as NetNewsWire, Google reader and others. But that is a whole other blog (coming soon…).

1.    The Web is not static – today’s great search engine may be tomorrow’s dinosaur. Therefore, periodic reviews of the search engines we use may be useful.
2.    There are several variants on PubMed out there. Choose one you like or one applicable to your search strategy.
3.    Use more than one search engine for each search you do.
4.    When using a mix of search engines, choose ones with different formats.
5.    You can customise some search engines to suit you.
6.    There is no ‘best’ engine, people have their own opinion and favour different search engines. Some people will probably still only ever use Google and PubMed.

Back story

The back story is that I am writing an article on aspects of Web 2.0 that might be particularly useful to medical writers (for the European Medical Writers Association Journal, The Write Stuff, June 2009 issue). I’ve necessarily had to make the article a whistle-stop tour to provide an introduction to everything from social bibliographies to social networking and web browsing. This blog, the Medical Communicating Network (www.medicalcommunicators.ning.com) and the twitter (http://twitter.com/Renshaw01) are the somewhat ill-planned offspring of that article. Nonetheless, while writing the article, I realised that I was barely skimming the surface. I kept unearthing little gems that I couldn’t squeeze into the EMWA article and that would make decent articles entirely on their own. New, funky search engines for writers, health professionals and scientists were some of these jewels.


Acharaya KK, Greta K and Haritha H. How do you choose your literature search tool(s)? Nature Precedings: npre.2008.2101.2 : Posted 23 Jul 2008. Available at: http://precedings.nature.com/documents/2101/version/2


Entry filed under: Database, Health, Journals, Medical writing, Medicine, Pharmaceutical, PubMed, Research, Science writing, Search engines, Web 2.0, Writing tools, tips and updates.

Is peer review the enemy of creativity? “Bad scientists”, MMR, LBC and Ben Goldacre

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Hope Leman  |  February 7, 2009 at 3:21 pm

    Hi, Julie. This is an outstanding blog and this is an outstanding overview of the state of medical search. Way to go—you have performed a real public service here. I just twittered about this post. One major suggestion—put a Twitter button on your page so that more people can learn about your blog. I now look for Twitter buttons straight away even before I look for RSS buttons.

    This post is a veritable goldmine of information. I am going to bookmark it and probably will spend hours checking out the links you provide. I tip my hat to you—you’re a search maven.

    I would be most interested in your view on Mednar. To me, Mednar is the most interesting of the new medical search engines in that it searches the Deep Web in a way that PubMed does not and also because its creators, Deep Web Technologies, are so open to input about the design of Mednar and the resources it draws upon. This is a real opportunity for those of us who work with search engines to interact fruitfully with the people creating the tools we use.

    I concur with your points about using a mix of search engines. That is why I try to get medical librarians to check out Mednar. We often get into our little “PubMed is all” mindset and need to supplement our use it with new tools like Mednar and ScienceRoll.

    And thanks for the link to ScanGrants—I am very proud of it and really do think it is a useful tool for those hoping to land some grant funding or scholarships in the health sciences.

    And I really do urge those interested in search to follow AltSearchEngines—I write for it so am biased. But it is am incredible resource on all things search.

    Anyway, congratulations for the superb overview. I just tweeted about this page. I hope it will become widely read.

  • 2. renshaw01  |  February 8, 2009 at 11:04 am

    Thank you for your kind words Hope. I hope this post is useful. I have updated the post to include a mention of Mednar.

  • 3. Hope Leman  |  February 8, 2009 at 12:15 pm

    Hi, Julie. Thanks so much–I really do think it is a good tool.

    So is Twitter–I am following you there.

  • 4. Karen Vondy  |  February 10, 2009 at 10:47 am

    Wow, Juliet, this is really comprehensive – well done. Lots of really useful sites that I’d never heard of but will now have fun exploring! In terms of any others…. well, they’re not search engines per se, but 2 sites I use in my work are the Electronic Medicines Compendium for drug info (unlike the BNF, this can be accessed freely in countries outside the UK) , and (very occasionally) good old Wikipedia, which can provide a useful springboard when you need to start from scratch finding out about a topic you know nothing about.

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