Medline – Reviewed Fall 1996

MEDLINE Via Ovid Retrieval Software: A Research Tool for Physical and Medical Anthropology

Reviewed by James D. Haug, East Carolina University, Greenville, North
Carolina, August 1996.

MEDLINE via Ovid, Version 3.0. 1996. Ovid Technologies, 333 Seventh
Avenue, New York, NY 10001, 800-950-2035. Ovid bibliographic database search
software–one of several interfaces with the MEDLINE database–serves Windows,
DOS, and UNIX platforms, and is available for standalone usage with CD-ROMs,
as well as for multiple usage on LANs employing either CD- ROM or magnetic
media. Ovid provides the database in full (1966 – present) or in two-,
four-, and five-year segments. Subscription fees depend upon mode of access
(standalone or networked), number of simultaneous users, and temporal coverage.


Physical and medical anthropologists often seek journal articles on
human biology and health care: topics exhaustively covered by the several
bibliograpcovered by the several
bibliographic databases that focus on the health sciences. When judged
by several criteria–breadth of coverage, potential relevance to anthropological
research, and widespread availability–one database stands out: MEDLINE,
the best known and most often used bibliographic database in the National
Library of Medicine’s (NLM) Medical Literature Analysis and Retrieval System
(MEDLARS). MEDLINE (MEDlars onLINE) concentrates on medical science but
encompasses dentistry, nursing, and, in fact, much of human biology.

Largely because of its breadth, MEDLINE offers a rich bibliographic
source to physical and medical anthropologists. And, with the development
of CD-ROM systems, searches of MEDLINE have become easy and widely available.
Of the several currently available CD-ROM- based interfaces with MEDLINE,
the most popular are Ovid 3.0 and Silverplatter’s SPIRS and WinSPIRs. The
reviewer used Ovid 3.0 for Windows.

User Instruction:

Thesaurus: A principal strength of MEDLINE is its controlled
vocabulary: MeSH (Medical Subject Headings). MeSH increases the specificity
(precision) of searches of the database. The appropriate printed thesaurus
is Medical Subject Headings, Annotated Alphabetic List (Springfield,
VA: NTIS. Annual). Known simply as Annotated MeSH, its entries include,
besides MeSH descriptors, indexing annotations, online notes, and topical
subheadin and topical
subheadings. Annotated MeSH contains nearly 17,000 MeSH terms, some of
which are annually added, modified, or deleted. Annotated MeSH also
provides lists of publication types and permissible topical subheadings.

Two auxiliary indexes enhance usage of Annotated MeSH by leading
the searcher to appropriate MeSH headings: Permuted Medical Subject
and Medical Subject Headings, Tree Structures (Springfield,
VA: NTIS. Annual). Permuted MeSH alphabetically lists each significant
term in a subject heading and uses See references to direct one to the
desired MeSH term. MeSH Tree Structures uses hierarchical classification
to point the user to broader or narrower MeSH terms.

Ovid 3.0 enables an end-user to bypass, but not ignore, Annotated
. It does so by automatically mapping a search term to a brief
list of semantically related MeSH descriptors. From this list, one can
then choose a MeSH term for a search. To guide the searcher to the appropriate
heading, Ovid’s mapping screen displays a scope note defining the term
on which the cursor rests. For example, “African Americans” maps
to “Blacks,” but the scope note indicates that genetics of African
Americans should be searched under “Negroid Race.” Ovid usually
maps terms to appropriate–sometimes broad but often specific–MeSH descriptors.
Thus it maps “cladist it maps “cladistic analysis” to the broad descriptor, “phylogeny,”
but impressively, maps “binges” to the narrow MeSH term “alcohol
drinking.” When Ovid finds no matching MeSH descriptor it normally
informs the user that it cannot map the entered term. Occasionally, though,
it errs and maps to wholly inappropriate descriptors. “Allometry,”
for instance, enigmatically maps to “muscles.” Out of a sample
of 900 keywords from 242 articles published between 1990-94 in six different
anthropological journals/yearbooks , 42% mapped to accurate, specific MeSH
terms, 20% to broad terms, and 4% to narrower or related headings. The
remaining 34% were either unmappable or mapped inaccurately. In any event,
when one finds none of the displayed MeSH terms to be suitable, the system
allows one to do a text word search. Generally speaking, mapping works
well and is the most impressive feature of Ovid.

Printed User Guides: Various published sources describe and explain
the MEDLINE database. The introductory material in Annotated MeSH is
informative but not elementary. Ovid Technologies furnishes the Ovid
Reference Manual
and Ovid System Administrator Manual. The Reference
contains a “User Guide.” In addition, a user can obtain
documentation for Ovid software from Ovid Technologies’ World Wide Web
server. Especially useful isEspecially useful is the Ovid Windows Starter Kit, an abstracted
version of the printed manual. The examples shown in the Kit represent
searches of Ovid MEDLINE. (One can get this document from

User Assistance (On-screen): The layout of the screens in Ovid
Windows is instructive and simple. Screen titles, button
labels, and on-screen directions are readable and unambiguous. On-screen
help is abundant and easy to find. One can get help by clicking on a Help
button or by pressing the F1 function key. The main search screen features
a pull-down menu that includes a hypertext index of help screens, keyboard
help, screen pictures, and a tutorial.

Scope and Coverage

An enormous database, MEDLINE contains nearly 8.4 million records dating
from the present back to 1966. Every month the National Library of Medicine
adds 32,000 new citations. The full Ovid MEDLINE database comprises five
parts, each of which a user must search separately: 1966-75, 1976-79, 1980-85,
1986-91, and 1992-present. The NLM frequently updates MEDLINE: weekly,
January through October; monthly in November and December. Ovid Technologies,
however, updates MEDLINE on CD-ROM once a month, thus making it lag somewhat
behind NLM MEDLINE. For most anthropolog For most anthropological research this lag should not
be detrimental.

MEDLINE includes all the citations appearing in the printed Index
, besides many of the citations published in the printed Index
to Dental Literature and the International Nursing Index.
MEDLINE extensively covers journals, but contains few records of monographs.
By estimate , more than 90% of the records in MEDLINE represent journal
articles. The NLM regularly indexes nearly 3,700 journals for the database.
To find out whether or not a particular journal is indexed for MEDLINE,
one can either consult List of Serials Indexed for Online Users
(Springfield, VA: NTIS. Annual), or, if one is using Ovid, display a list
of titles by selecting an index of journal names.

Though MEDLINE indexes articles published in sixty-seven languages,
most of the articles included in the database are originally written in
English, and about 70sh, and about 70% of the records in the current file contain an English
abstract. Ovid 3.0 enables the searcher to limit articles to a selected

Anthropologists who conduct research in human biology or medicine should
expect to find relevant journal articles through MEDLINE. MEDLINE covers
somewhat more than half (52%) of the 1100 currently published titles cited
in articles appearing in the previously mentioned sample of anthropological
journals/yearbooks. More importantly, MEDLINE indexes 36 (65%) of the 55
most frequently cited titles in this sample, including American Journal
of Physical Anthropology, Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry, Folia Primatologica,
Human Biology, Molecular Biology and Evolution,
and Social Science
and Medicine
. On the other hand, NLM has, since its inception in 1966,
consistently neglected other often cited anthropological journals and serials.
A notable example is Medical Anthropology Quarterly, with only 23 records
(all from 1995) for 1992 – May, 1996, despite publication since 1970. Worse
still, from an anthropologist’s viewpoint, MEDLINE does not cover American
Anthropologist, Annual Review of Anthropology, Current Anthropology, Ethnology,
Human Ecology, Journal of Human Evolution, Man, Primates,
or Yearbook
of Physical Anthropology.
Moreover, out of the 39 anthropological journals
listed in Katz’ Magazines for Libraries (8th ed., New Pr (8th ed., New Providence,
NJ: Bowker) only 5 are indexed in MEDLINE. In sum, MEDLINE covers many
of the journals cited by physical and medical anthropologists, but few
of those used by other anthropologists.

The geographical scope of MEDLINE is international. MeSH includes terms
for continents, some subcontinental regions (e.g., Africa, Central), nations,
states, and selected cities, but none for supercontinental regions (e.g.,
New World). Anyway, MEDLINE indexes only a small percentage of records–perhaps
no more than 12%–with a geographic descriptor.

MeSH lacks descriptors for many ethnic units. For example, MeSH does
not include “Navajo” or “Hopi.” Neither does MeSH contain
a term comprehending all Native Americans, both North American and South
American. To find articles on all American Indians (or Native Americans)
one must search for “Indians, North American,” “Indians,
South American,” and “Indians, Central American.” At the
same time, it includes the ambiguous, if not archaic, term, “Negroid

Record Structure and Search Software

Record Structure: Records in the MEDLINE database consist
of bibliographic information and, in more than 50% of the cases, abstracts.
Searchable fields in Ovid 3.0 include, among others, unique identifier,
author, institution, title, journal name, MeSH subject henal name, MeSH subject heading, abstract,
personal name as subject, publication type, ISSN, year of publication,
and text word.

Limiting and Expanding: Ovid enables users to limit a search,
but it also allows them to quickly broaden a search through MEDLINE’s “explode”
feature. One can limit a search either by entering Boolean operators into
the command line or by selecting items from a series of menus. From menus
one can choose a “Narrower Subject Heading,” restrict the search
to “focus” (“focus” being the MeSH descriptor the indexers
consider to represent the dominant concept of the article), select one
or more permissible subheadings (such as “Anatomy and Histology”
or “Genetics”), or select from a menu of variables including
“Human,” “Animal,” “Male,” “Female,”
“Age Groups,” and “Publication Types.” Exploding a
MeSH descriptor nets not only the records for a major descriptor, but also
those for all its subordinate terms.

Search Software: Ovid 3.0 allows users to alternate between two
modes of searching without leaving the main search screen: first, by using
menus and dialog boxes, as well as by browsing and selecting from indexes;
and, secondly, by entering commands. Searching by command permits entering
search terms with truncation and wild cards, set numbers, Boolean operatumbers, Boolean operators,
and abbreviated field names. After one has completed a search and posted
the search to the main screen, one can either immediately view the records,
or further restrict the search by limiting, before saving or printing the
results. Ovid also allows one to save or print one’s search strategy.

Comparisons with Related Databases

Two related bibliographic databases that physical and medical anthropologists
might consider are CINAHL and BIOSIS. CINAHL, whose printed version is
Cumulative Index of Nursing and Allied Health Literature, only sparsely
covers anthropologically related journals. BIOSIS, corresponding to Biological
Abstracts, is a fruitful source of citations to articles on animal behavior,
ecology, evolution, and taxonomy, subjects not well covered by MEDLINE.
Available both online and on CD-ROM, BIOSIS indexes more journals/yearbooks
often cited by physical anthropologists than does MEDLINE.

Summary of Positive Aspects

Though MEDLINE was designed for medicine and not for anthropology, its
exhaustive, timely coverage of journals concerned with health and human
biology makes it very useful to physical and medical anthropologists. The
difficulties associated with accessing the database online, which usually
required mediated searching, have been overcome by development of user-friendly
local CD-ROM-based interfaces. For end-users, Ovid 3s. For end-users, Ovid 3.0 for Windows further
enhances ease of searching MEDLINE by making several remarkable features
available: contextual help, ease of movement between menus and commands,
mapping of entered terms to MeSH descriptors, exploding, narrowing search
to focus, and limitation of a search by subheadings and several other fields.
Being able to search for text words gives users considerable flexibility
when searching for subjects that have no suitable MeSH descriptor. All
these features should encourage anthropologists to use MEDLINE.

Recommendations for Improvement

Given the primary audience and purpose of MEDLINE, recommending
expansion of coverage of anthropological subjects would appear
But while anthropologists should not expect the National Library of
Medicine to index archaeological journals, they might reasonably expect
it to
include titles such as Annual Review of Anthropology and Current
Anthropology. Then too, any researcher who seeks appropriate MeSH
descriptors for ethnic groups and geographical locations would appreciate
an increase in the number and specificity of these kinds of descriptors.

References Cited

1. American Journal of Physical Anthropology (1994), Yearbook
of Physical Anthropology
(1994), Annual Review of Anthropology (1990-91,
1993-94), Medical Anthropology(1994), Medical Anthropology Quarterly

(1994), and Social Science & Medicine (1991, 1994).

2. Pratt, Gregory F. “A Brief Hitchhiker’s Guide to Medline.” Database 17 (February 1994): 41-46.

3. Pratt, op. cit., p. 44.

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