NLM Strategic Opportunities and Challenges: We Want to Hear from You!

Guest post by Mike Huerta, PhD, director of the Office of Strategic Initiatives and associate director of the National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.

A Platform for Biomedical Discovery and Data-Powered Health,” NLM’s current 10-year strategic plan, envisions three goals with a 2027 horizon: 

  1. Accelerate discovery and advance health through data-driven research.
  2. Reach more people in more ways through enhanced dissemination and engagement.
  3. Build a workforce for data-driven research and health.

Discussions among panels of experts, conversations with NLM’s diverse stakeholder communities, and feedback from the public informed this ambitious plan. In the years since the plan was issued, in 2017, NLM has conducted more than 100 initiatives, projects, and other activities in pursuit of these goals.

Shaping the continuing implementation of NLM’s strategic plan

To make sure that our strategic plan implementation activities remain relevant and attuned to the needs of the public, NLM released a Request for Information (RFI) to learn from you about any related major opportunities or challenges that have arisen or become significantly more important since the plan was created.

While NLM has been advancing its strategic goals, there have been many changes in science, technology, and society that are relevant to our mission. For example, the use of artificial intelligence in research and health care has greatly increased, biomedical scientists are increasingly using nontraditional channels to share their research results, and, of course, there is an urgent need to understand the novel coronavirus and figure out how to quell the pandemic that has affected so many lives around the world. 

Your feedback will help us ensure that the implementation of NLM’s strategic plan remains current. Responses to the RFI will be accepted through October 19, 2020.

Progress toward the plan’s goals

NLM is leading the way in the use of large data sets to make new discoveries and achieve greater efficiencies in the fields of data science and health care — all in pursuit of our current strategic goals. Recent examples of how we have accelerated discovery and data-driven health research include:

  • Expanding and enhancing data science research in both our extramural and intramural research programs
  • Moving dozens of terabytes of genomic data and associated tools to a secure commercial cloud solution to allow researchers to tackle new questions in new ways
  • Leading the promotion and adoption of health-related data standards, thereby adding value to extramural and intramural research across NIH
  • Stimulating cross-NIH discussions of the ethical and societal implications of computational algorithms and artificial intelligence 

NLM also carried out a broad set of analyses, assessments, and evaluations to improve our products, services, and infrastructure and bolster their sustainability.

Reaching more people in more ways through enhanced dissemination and engagement, raising awareness, and ensuring optimal use of NLM’s many diverse offerings have been supported by a major reorganization of NLM that consolidated many important engagement and training activities in one office while maintaining deep channels of communication with subject matter experts across different parts of the Library. NLM has also advanced this goal through:

  • Public communication initiatives to reinforce the recognition of NLM as a trusted source of information
  • Investments in systems to enhance information delivery, which include user experience and usability studies of and the NIH Common Data Elements Repository to ensure that users can find the information they need with ease

NLM has implemented many successful strategic activities to build a workforce for data-driven research and health. These activities include multifaceted approaches to meeting the needs of NLM staff, emerging professionals, researchers, and health care professionals, such as:

  • Conducting a comprehensive analysis of data science training at NIH. This involved working with our extramural communities, in both research labs and libraries, as well as with program and other NIH staff.
  • Convening thought leaders from the library community to produce a road map to identify and develop the skill set that librarians need to advance efforts in data science and open science.
  • Hosting workshops to train intramural scientists across NIH on data science tools and approaches, along with a targeted training program in data science engaging more than a thousand NLM staff members.

These activities have been highly influential in developing a data-savvy biomedical workforce comprising scientists, librarians, and NIH staff. The aforementioned NLM staff training program is now in its second year and serves as a model for developing data science capacity across the federal workforce.

Where you come in

I urge you to respond to the RFI to share your perspective and also to encourage your friends and colleagues to do the same. With your help, NLM can continue to be a leader in data science and open science and continue to innovate as a national library, fueling biomedical research and health care advances as an invaluable asset to the public and professionals everywhere.   

Dr. Huerta directs the Office of Strategic Initiatives to identify, implement, and assess the strategic direction of NLM. In his 30 years at NIH, he has led many trans-NIH research initiatives and helped establish neuroinformatics as a field. Dr. Huerta joined NIH’s National Institute of Mental Health in 1991, before moving to NLM in 2011.

Glad to Meet You Virtually: Reflections on the MLA Conference

I’ve just “returned” from the Medical Library Association (MLA) ’20 Conference Live Action Week held August 10–14. After much deliberation and rescheduling, this meeting, like so many others, was reimagined in a virtual format using video, text and chats, and online presentations to connect attendees.

Returned is a funny term because, of course, I didn’t travel any farther than from my desk to the table in my home office. But during those several days, I turned my focus away from my usual pursuits while I attended virtual sessions and participated in discussions to improve my understanding of how NLM can align its efforts with MLA to meet the health information needs of society.

MLA is a global organization with a membership of more than 400 institutions and 3,000 professionals in the health information field. NLM and MLA partner to address issues related to health information services and to support joint educational programs. MLA’s annual meeting provides NLM with opportunities to introduce new products and initiatives, get feedback on our services, and learn how to better support the medical library community.

I was delighted to join my NLM colleagues Dianne Babski, acting associate director of NLM’s Division of Library Operations, and Amanda J. Wilson, chief of NLM’s Office of Engagement and Training, to update conference participants on NLM activities and share a new video introducing NLM. We centered our remarks around three themes: relevance, resilience, and reinvention.

NLM strives to be relevant to the evolving health information needs of professionals, researchers, and patients — our mission since NLM was established in 1836. Being relevant means understanding and anticipating information needs in a principled way. This requires a great deal of resilience across our organization as scientific communication advances, research paradigms shift, and the very words we use to characterize health problems and label health outcomes evolve. Remaining engaged, particularly during this time of maximum telework and urgent efforts to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic (in addition to focusing on our usual work), also requires resilience. So NLM is reinventing the way we do our work; the manner in which we engage our stakeholders; and our ability to deliver products and services to partners who are also facing challenges related to social-distancing measures, reduced hours, or the elimination of services due to cost-cutting initiatives.

During our presentation we shared an update on efforts to enhance our approach to reaching communities through the work of the evolved NNLM and its new name – the Network of the National Library of Medicine. This more focused and inclusive name acknowledges that not all members are libraries of medicine. Its new goal? To increase health equity through information – which adds an important new dimension to NNLM’s mission. This effort also involves an increased emphasis on reaching underrepresented populations and balances NNLM regions across communities served.

We encouraged medical librarians to consider how these themes — relevance, resilience, and reinvention — play out in their lives. It’s no secret that traditional opportunities for hospital librarians are disappearing at a time when their expertise is more relevant than ever. This change requires a measure of reinvention to determine how to add data science and data librarianship skills to a medical library training program and work history and identify new ways to serve the public with the original zeal that brought people to medical librarianship. During this time of challenge — and opportunity — medical library professionals are also being called upon to demonstrate the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties and the ability to spring back into shape, that is, to be resilient.

So, what was missing from this year’s conference?

I missed hugs! I missed the serendipitous encounters with far-flung colleagues as we rushed to another session but still found time to exchange greetings. I missed Teresa Knott’s smile and missed seeing former associates and NLM/Association of Academic Health Science Libraries fellows who have become professionals. I missed meeting in person with MLA leadership to continue learning how to become a better partner. And I missed seeing my NLM colleagues, both those who work here in Bethesda and those who work at other locations around the country.

Relevance. Resilience. Reinvention. Each of these is infused and strengthened during interactions with colleagues at national conferences and in our everyday workplaces.

How can NLM help ensure the presence of these qualities in your life during this time of virtual meetings?

Watch All About It!

Guest post by Bart Trawick, PhD, director of the Customer Services Division at the National Library of Medicine’s National Center for Biotechnology Information, National Institutes of Health.

NLM’s PubMed is the most heavily used biomedical literature citation database in the world. PubMed provides free access to more than 30 million citations and is searched by more than 2.5 million users daily. It is a critical resource for helping researchers, health care professionals, students, and the public share information and learn more about the latest developments in life sciences.

Earlier this year, NLM launched an updated version of PubMed with an enhanced design that provides advanced technology to improve the user experience on mobile as well as desktop devices. This modern interface includes updated web elements for easier navigation and enhanced search results, including previews with highlighted text snippets that can help you scan your results.

Instead of telling you more about these new features and how they work, I invite you to check out a few of them in this video.

Click to watch and learn more about a few of PubMed’s exciting features.

Video Transcript (below):

PubMed is the most heavily used biomedical citation database in the world, guiding over two and a half million users per day to the latest advances in life sciences research. We’re constantly improving PubMed to meet the needs of its diverse user base and to take advantage of ever-evolving internet technologies and standards.

The latest version of PubMed, released in May 2020, is the product of hundreds of hours of stakeholder engagement and research undertaken to give you a better experience.

And it’s not the first time we’ve made big changes.

From its humble beginnings in 1997, PubMed now comprises more than 30 million biomedical literature citations from MEDLINE, life science journals, and online books. These citations may include links to full-text content in PubMed Central and publisher websites to take you directly to the information you need.

To be sustainable going forward, the latest release of PubMed required major changes including new databases, web architecture and cloud delivery. Combined, these changes resulted in a much more resilient version of PubMed with a modern design that looks and works great on your desktop, your laptop, and your mobile device!

We realize this feels like a big change, but we’ve been working hard to help everyone make the transition to the new site and have continued to make improvements along the way.

Here are a couple new and revamped features designed to improve the user experience.

The new Cite button makes it easy to retrieve styled citations you can copy and paste into a document or download an .nbib file to use with your reference manager software.

Using the Cite button for an item will open a pop-up window where you can copy the citation formatted in four popular styles.

Automatic Term Mapping, also called “ATM”, was present in the legacy PubMed, but it’s been expanded to include additional British and American spellings, singular and plural word forms, and other synonyms to provide more consistent and comprehensive search retrieval.

We’re always looking for ways to improve PubMed. Just as we’ve done for the past 24 years, we’ll continue to add features and data to stay current as technology, publishing standards, and our users’ needs evolve.

Please think about other ways that NLM can help you, and share your ideas  with us.  

Headshot image of Bart Trawick, PhD

As director of the Customer Services Division, Dr. Trawick works to connect customers with the vast information resources available from NLM’s National Center for Biotechnology Information. He has also worked to support the National Institutes of Health Public Access Policy since its establishment in 2005. Dr. Trawick is a graduate of Texas A&M University and the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.

Introducing the NIH Guide Notice Encouraging Researchers to Adopt U.S. Core Data for Interoperability Standard

Recently, NIH issued a guide notice (NOT-OD-20-146) encouraging NIH-supported clinical programs and researchers to adopt and use the standardized set of healthcare data classes, data elements, and associated vocabulary standards in the U.S. Core Data for Interoperability (USCDI) standard. This standard will make it easier to exchange health information for research and clinical care, and is required under the Office of the National Coordinator Health Information Technology (ONC) Cures Act Final Rule to support seamless and secure access, exchange, and use of electronic health information.

USCDI standardizes health data classes and data elements that make sharing health information across the country interoperable, expands on data long required to be supported by certified EHRs, and incorporates health data standards developed.

NLM is proud to support USCDI through continued efforts to establish and maintain clinical terminology standards within the Department of Health and Human Services.

Standardized health data classes and elements enable collaboration, make it easier to aggregate research data, and enhance the discoverability of groundbreaking research. USCDI adoption will allow care delivery and research organizations to use the same coding systems for key data elements that are part of the USCDI data classes.

I encourage you to read more about the new guide notice in a joint post developed in collaboration with my NIH and ONC colleagues titled: “Leveraging Standardized Clinical Data to Advance Discovery.” And I ask you to consider, what could this notice mean for you? 

Some Insights on the Roles and Uses of Generalist Repositories

Guest post by Susan Gregurick, PhD, Associate Director for Data Science and Director, Office of Data Science Strategy, NIH

Data repositories are a useful way for researchers to both share data and make their data more findable, accessible, interoperable, and reusable (that is, aligned with the FAIR Data Principles).

Generalist repositories can house a vast array of data. This kind of repository does not restrict data by type, format, content, or topic. NIH has been exploring the roles and uses of generalist repositories in our data repository landscape through three activities, which I describe below, garnering valuable insights over the last year.

A pilot project with a generalist repository

NIH Figshare archive

Last September, I introduced Musings readers to the one-year Figshare pilot project, which was recently completed. Information about the NIH Figshare instance — and the outcomes of the project — is available on the Office of Data Science Strategy’s website. This project gave us an opportunity to uncover how NIH-funded researchers might utilize a generalist repository’s existing features. It also allowed us to test some specific options, such as a direct link to grant information, expert guidance, and metadata improvements.

There are three key takeaways from the project:

  • Generalist repositories are growing. More researchers are depositing data in, and more publications are linking to, generalist repositories.
  • Researchers need more education and guidance on where to publish data and how to effectively describe datasets using detailed metadata.
  • Better metadata enables greater discoverability. Expert metadata review proved to be one of the most impactful and unique features of the pilot instance, which we determined through two key metrics. When compared to data uploaded to the main Figshare repository by NIH-funded investigators, the NIH Figshare instance had files with more descriptive titles (e.g., twice as long) and metadata descriptions that were more than three times longer.
Illustrating how professionals can identify opportunities for collaboration and competition.

The NIH Figshare instance is now an archive, but the data are still discoverable and reusable. Although this specific pilot has concluded, we encourage NIH-funded researchers to use a generalist repository that meets the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy criteria when a domain-specific or institutional repository is not available.

A community workshop on the role of generalist repositories

In February, the Office of Data Science Strategy hosted the NIH Workshop on the Role of Generalist and Institutional Repositories to Enhance Data Discoverability and Reuse, bringing together representatives of generalist and institutional repositories for a day and a half of rich discussion. The conversations centered around the concept of “coopetition,” the importance of people in the broader data ecosystem, and the importance of code. A full workshop summary is available, and our co-chairs and the workshop’s participating generalist repositories recently published a generalist repository comparison chart as one of the outcomes of this event.

We plan to keep engaging with this community to better enable coopetition among repositories while working collaboratively with repositories to ensure that researchers can share data effectively.

An independent assessment of the generalist repository landscape

We completed an independent assessment to understand the generalist repository landscape, discover where we were in tune with the community, and identify our blind spots. Key findings include the following:

  • There is a clear need for the services that generalist repositories provide.
  • Many researchers currently view generalist repository platforms as a place to deposit their own data, rather than a place to find and reuse other people’s data.
  • Repositories and researchers alike are looking to NIH to define its data sharing requirements, so each group knows what is expected of them.
  • The current lack of recognition and rewards for data sharing helps reinforce the focus on publications as the key metric of scientific output and therefore may be a disincentive to data sharing.

The pilot, workshop, and assessment provided us with a deeper understanding of the repository landscape.

We are committed to advancing progress in this important area of the data ecosystem of which we are all a part. We are currently developing ways to continue fostering coopetition among generalist repositories; strategies for increasing engagement with researchers, institutional repositories, and data librarians; and opportunities to better educate the biomedical research community on the value of effective data management and sharing.

The Office of Data Science Strategy will announce specific next steps in the near future. In the meantime, we invite you to share your ideas with us at

Dr. Gregurick leads the implementation of the NIH Strategic Plan for Data Science through scientific, technical, and operational collaboration with the institutes, centers, and offices that make up NIH. She has substantial expertise in computational biology, high performance computing, and bioinformatics.