Sussing Out the Search Engines

Opinion: I figured I needed to boost my Internet savvy, so I decided to consciously compare what medical Web resources found for me.

As someone who spends the majority of her time hunting down information, often online, I figured I needed to boost my Internet savvy. So I decided to consciously compare what different Web resources found for me while I hunted down information for a recent project—technologies that allow brain signals to control machines.

For the task, I used my longtime crutch, Google, its new intellectual cousin Google Scholar, the medical metasearch engine MedicalSearch, the National Library of Medicines PubMed and BioMedCentrals highly organized Faculty of 1000.

They all found (and missed) different sorts of information, but I could use results from one site to fine-tune searches in another.

I probably used just plain Google the most. This pulled up all sorts of articles in the popular press, some trade press (like Neurotech Reports) and some well-informed blogs. These set a good foundation, but no source gave me a sense of the history of the field, and most were too sparse in details to be used on their own.

Thinking Google Scholar ( might yield more specific information, I turned to it. This search engine revealed the more specialized literature, including a couple of valuable feature stories in Science and Nature. But if I hadnt had access to these magazines, the results would have been a series of enticing brick walls. While Google Scholar identified many promising hits, most of the articles required access privileges. If I had been at an institution with lots of site licenses, Google Scholar would have been much more useful. After getting frustrated with dead ends and requests for cash, I moved back to Google and on to PubMed.

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Free PubMed ( lets you search citations from hundreds of life sciences journals. Initially, I was overwhelmed with hits lists of incomprehensible titles. When I limited returns to review articles, the list became much more manageable, but I would have missed a particularly valuable opinion column had Google Scholar not told me to look for it. Again, if you dont have site licenses for the journals, youre often out of luck, but PubMed lets you access abstracts easily.

OmniMedicalSearch ( combines several medical search engines. It picked up information, like individual researchers Web pages, that the other engines missed. On the other hand, several links that looked really promising turned out to be dead. If you use this site, be sure to drill down past the search bar, because it also allows you to hunt out acronyms, associations, journals and public searchable databases.

OmniMedWeb is also the portal to my latest cant-live-without-it site, a medical dictionary powered by It searches several dictionaries at once, providing more- and less-specialized definitions, and is very comprehensive. Once, after an hour of particularly unproductive research, it provided the light bulb. An article that I assumed was talking about cancer-fighting monoclonal antibodies (mAbs) was actually talking about shutting down hormones that spur prostate cancer through MAB, or maximal androgen blockade.

Faculty of 1000 ( is the only resource I tried that wasnt free. A subscription is $75 a year, but the free trial lasts a long time. Professors from several countries write in about articles that they deem particularly valuable. If a new publication promises to be seminal for a given field, it should be posted; its a good way to figure out whats new and exciting in a particular piece of research, but youve got to be prepared for technical language. Its written by specialists, for specialists. You also cant expect to see assessments until a few days after new article is published. The searches on the site are a good way to find articles that might have otherwise escaped notice though.

For this particular project, Faculty of 1000 identified a useful retrospective article that hadnt been pulled up in my PubMed search. However, the site is aimed at basic rather than applied research. (A more applied site, Faculty of 1000 Medicine, should launch later this year.)

After several hours of finding and reading specialized articles, popular press accounts and institutional research descriptions, I found the most enlightening resource so far: a real, live human expert at the National Institutes of Health.

M. L. Baker writes about biotechnology and health IT for She can be reached at

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