As we start year three of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s time for NLM to take stock of the parts of our past that will support the next normal and what we might need to change as we continue to fulfill our mission to acquire, collect, preserve, and disseminate biomedical literature to the world.
Today, I invite you to join me in considering the assumptions and presumptions we made about how scientists, clinicians, librarians and patients are using critical NLM resources and how we might need to update those assumptions to meet future needs. I will give you a hint… it’s not all bad—in fact, I find it quite exciting!
Let’s highlight some of our assumptions about how people are using our services, at least from my perspective. We anticipated the need for access to medical literature across the Network of the National Library of Medicine and created DOCLINE, an interlibrary loan request routing system that quickly and efficiently links participating libraries’ journal holdings. We also anticipated that we were preparing the literature and our genomic databases for humans to read and peruse. Now we’re finding that more than half of the accesses to NLM resources are generated and driven by computers through application programming interfaces. Even our MedlinePlus resource for patients now connects tailored electronic responses through MedlinePlus Connect to computer-generated queries originating in electronic health records.
Perhaps, and most importantly, we realize that while sometimes the information we present is actually read by a living person, other times the information we provide—for example, about clinical trials (ClinicalTrials.gov) or genotype and phenotype data (dbGaP)—is actually processed by computers! Increasingly, we provide direct access to the raw, machine-readable versions of our resources so those versions can be entered into specialized analysis programs, which allow natural-language processing programs to find studies with similar findings or machine-learning models to determine the similarities between two gene sequences. For example, NLM makes it possible for advocacy groups to download study information from all ClinicalTrials.gov records so anyone can use their own programs to point out trials that may be of interest to their constituents or to compare summaries of research results for related studies.
Machine learning and artificial intelligence have progressed to the point that they perform reasonably well in connecting similar articles—to this end, our LitCovid open-resource literature hub has served as an electronic companion to the human curation of coronavirus literature. NLM’s LitCovid is more efficient and has a sophisticated search function to create pathways that are more relevant and are more likely to curate articles that fulfill the needs of our users. Most importantly, innovations such as LitCovid help our users manage the vast and ever-growing collection of biomedical literature, now numbering more than 34 million citations in NLM’s PubMed, the most heavily used biomedical literature citation database.
Partnerships are a critical asset to bring biomedical knowledge into the hands (and eyes) of those who need it. Over the last decade, NLM moved toward a new model for managing citation data in PubMed. We released the PubMed Data Management system that allows publishers to quickly update or correct nearly all elements of their citations and that accelerates the delivery of correct and complete citation data to PubMed users.
As part of the MEDLINE 2022 Initiative, NLM transitioned to automated Medical Subject Headings (MeSH) indexing of MEDLINE citations in PubMed. Automated MeSH indexing significantly decreases the time for indexed citations to appear in PubMed without sacrificing the quality MEDLINE is known to provide. Our human indexers can focus their expertise on curation efforts to validate assigned MeSH terms, thereby continuously improving the automated indexing algorithm and enhancing discoverability of gene and chemical information in the future.
We’re already preparing for the next normal—what do you think it will be like?
I envision making our vast resources increasingly available to those who need them and forging stronger partnerships that improve users’ ability to acquire and understand knowledge. Imagine a service, designed and run by patients, that could pull and synthesize the latest information about a disease, recommendations for managing a clinical issue, or help a young investigator better pinpoint areas ripe for new interrogation! The next normal will make the best use of human judgment and creativity by selecting and organizing relevant data to create a story that forms the foundation of new inquiry or the basis of new clinical care. Come along and help us co-create the next normal!
Dr. Brennan is the Director of the NIH National Library of Medicine, a leader in biomedical informatics and computational health data science research and the world’s largest biomedical library. Under her leadership, NLM has grown its intramural and extramural research enterprise, extended stakeholders’ access to credible and reliable health information, and acquired and preserved biomedical literature using cutting-edge digital research and outreach. Read more about Dr. Brennan.