Models: The Third Leg in Data-Driven Discovery

Considering a library of models

George Box, a famous statistician, once remarked, “All models are wrong, and some are useful.”

As representations or approximations of real-world phenomena, models, when done well, can be very useful.  In fact, they serve as the third leg to the stool that is data-driven discovery, joining the published literature and its underlying data to give investigators the materials necessary to explore important dynamics in health and biomedicine.

By isolating and replicating key aspects within complex phenomena, models help us better understand what’s going on and how the pieces or processes fit together.

Because of the complexity within biomedicine, health care research must employ different kinds of models, depending on what’s being looked at.

Regardless of the type used, however, models take time to build, because the model builder must first understand the elements of the phenomena that must be represented. Only then can she select the appropriate modeling tools and build the model.

Tracking and storing models can help with that.

Not only would tracking models enable re-use—saving valuable time and money—but doing so would enhance the rigor and reproducibility of the research itself by giving scientists the ability to see and test the methodology behind the data.

Enter libraries.

As we’ve done for the literature, libraries can help document and preserve models and make them discoverable.

The first step in that is identifying and collecting useful models.

Second, we’d have to apply metadata to describe the models. Among the essential elements to include in such descriptions might be model type, purpose, key underlying assumptions, referent scale, and indicators of how and when the model was used.

screencapture with the DOI and RRIDs highlighted
The DOI and RRIDs in a current PubMed record.
(Click to enlarge.)

We’d then need to apply one or more unique identifiers to help with curation. Currently, two different schema provide principled ways to identify models: the Digital Object Identifier (DOI) and the Research Resource Identifier (RRID). The former provides a persistent, unique code to track an item or entity at an overarching level (e.g., an article or book).  The latter documents the main resources used to produce the scientific findings in that article or book (e.g., antibodies, model organisms, computational models).

Just as clicking on an author’s name in PubMed can bring up all the articles he or she has written, these interoperable identifiers, once assigned to research models, make it possible to connect the studies employing those models.  Effectively, these identifiers can tie together the three components that underpin data-driven discovery—the literature, the supporting data, and the analytical tools—thus enhancing discoverability and streamlining scientific communication.

NLM’s long-standing role in collecting, organizing, and making available the biomedical literature positions us well to take on the task of tracking research models, but is that something we should do?

If so, what might that library of models look like? What else should it include? And how useful would this library of models be to you?

Photo credit (stool, top): Doug Belshaw [Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | erased text from original]

When Good Enough—Isn’t

On the importance of librarians in the age of Google

“Why do we need librarians when we have Google?”

“What is the role of a librarian now that we can google anything?”

How often have you heard that?

Let’s face it: We have all become enticed by the immediacy of the answers that search engines provide, and we’ve come to accept the good-enough answer—even when good enough isn’t.

When I ask a librarian for help, I am tapping not only into his or her expertise, but also into that of countless others behind the scenes.

From the staff who purposefully and thoughtfully develop the collection—guided by a collection development manual other librarians have carefully crafted and considered—to the team of catalogers and indexers who assign metadata to the items we acquire, to the technical staff who design the systems that make automated search possible, we’ve got a small army of librarians supporting my personal act of discovery…and yours.

Put another way, the public services librarian is just the tip of the spear, the point of contact, between me and the phalanx of librarians and library resources behind her.

And like the tip of a spear, the librarian is sharp, targeted, and precise—a stark contrast to the smothering deluge a web search commonly delivers. The reference interview alone, when done well, is a master stroke no search engine can replicate as it refines and clarifies the perfect item for my needs.

Blending my input with her own knowledge of how medical information is described and organized, the librarian lays out a carefully structured query, one that marries logic with skill and experience to yield an answer I can trust, whether that’s a specific answer to a question or the oftentimes equally valuable “no results found.”

So why don’t more people consult librarians?

Simplicity is one reason. In the smart-phone/search-engine age, we don’t often need help with factual, direct questions like “When did Marshall Nirenberg win the Nobel Prize?” (Answer: 1968) or “How many chromosomes do humans have?” (Answer: 23 pairs, for a total of 46).

Immediacy also drives the DIY researcher. Many would rather take what they can get right now than wait the couple of hours or couple of days a librarian might need to perform thoughtful and thorough research.

Then there’s the psychological or emotional toll of bringing someone into our research. We have to admit we don’t know something, and we have to find the words to communicate what we need. In that way, working with a librarian is not an energy-free exchange.

Of course, neither is sifting through pages and pages of imprecise results. But that, at least, we can do in our own time and at our own pace, convincing ourselves that we can find the kernels of wheat in the mountain of chaff.

But can we?

When the outcome really matters—when you’re seeking treatment options, developing a research protocol, analyzing genetic mutations—how confident are you in your ability to find the answers you need?

Let me offer a challenge: The next time you have a substantive question, ask a librarian and then report back here about how it went.

I’ll bet your results will be better than good enough.

Photo credit (Test of Strength, top): Steve Snodgrass [Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | cropped, added puck]

Health, Culture, and Community

Personal history impacts how we understand health information.

While in New Mexico last month, I came upon something profound at the Albuquerque Museum.

While I enjoyed the exhibitions and sculptures very much, it was a sign that really got me thinking:

Art in New Mexico is characterized by celebration of tradition, innovation within heritage, and groundbreaking developments of new forms and ideas. Many museums make sense of this diversity by dividing cultures into more clearly identified groups. However, humans do not always live in easily explained communities.

“Humans do not always live in easily explained communities.”


This sentence hit me hard.

It also got me thinking about NLM. We’re an institution with a great heritage. We’re on the verge of even more groundbreaking developments and new ideas. And we’re exploring how to better reach out to a more diverse audience.

We try our best to reach every possible individual and audience and yet, when faced with the challenges of making information available and accessible to all, we sometimes fall back on convenient nationalistic or linguistic characterizations.

For example, people appreciate and use the resources we’ve translated into Spanish, from MedlinePlus en español to infoSIDA and MeSH, but is it enough?

We partner with the Pan American Health Organization to strengthen local and national infrastructures regarding disaster health information, we fund research into health disparities, and we reach out to Hispanic Americans and other minority groups, but can we do more?

How might the quote above, from the Albuquerque Museum, inspire us to think differently about what we do and how we do it?

I don’t have all the answers, but let me tell you what I’m thinking.

First, we must bring our materials into the lives of people we serve in a way that includes both hope and authority. Too often those involved in health care emphasize factual accuracy and professional expertise—to the exclusion of anything else—when they impart health information. Obviously, accuracy and authority matter tremendously, but hope has its place. By providing information in a more helpful and hopeful way, we may even accelerate the compliance with, insights into, or adoption of healthful living that the information is intended to produce.

Next, we must respect the fact that knowledge is shaped by culture and customs. As we share the biomedical knowledge of the world with the world, we should convey the perspective and culture embedded in the work. Knowledge without context, or without cultural competence, is often neither heard nor believed.

And finally, we must remember that, like art in a museum, how people view what they’re seeing matters.

Our ability to understand and act (or fail to act) upon health information is ultimately impacted by our personal history—from experiences to feelings to underlying and often unspoken assumptions and ideas. Rather than blank slates, passively receiving new content, people are active participants in discovering the usefulness of and meaning in the health information they’re given.

Accommodating complexity is not easy, so I’ll continue to mull over how NLM can help, but I invite your ideas, too.

How does your community or your experience shape how you receive health information? How can we deliver health information in a way that takes into account the complexity of our country’s communities?


I Still Walk in Wonder

Each morning, I still walk in wonder across the NIH campus to Buildings 38 and 38A, the home of the National Library of Medicine.

A few weeks ago I arrived on campus as a glorious sunrise greeted me, passing the Natcher Center (Building 45), where our NCBI team occupies three floors, and our parking lot, already full of cars from the employees who come in early or work overnight to ensure our resources are available 24/7.

We have some 1,700 women and men working here, so even 16 months in to my time as director, I’m still meeting staff members for the first time. Last month, besides that glorious sunrise, I encountered Tory Detweiler on my way in to work and learned a bit about her.

Her story is worth sharing.

Two women sitting and smiling
Dr. Brennan and Tory Detweiler

Tory has worked in the NLM History of Medicine Division for the last four years, but, as she explained to me, she has been at NLM for 29 years, 8 months and 18 days. (Yes, she knows the precise count!) She actually began at the Library in 1978, working part-time while a student at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland, and then later, while she was in college.

Tory works with content in NLM’s archives, ensuring everyone has access to these treasures. Presently, she’s photographing 500 public service posters developed during the AIDS epidemic so they can be cataloged and added to NLM Digital Collections, but she has also honed her scanning, cataloging, and Photoshop skills.

Making material accessible has special meaning to Tory. As a person who is deaf, she understands just how important it is to make information available to as many people as possible.

The unit where she works, the Archives and Modern Manuscripts Collection, handles the personal papers and organizational records from predominantly American medical practitioners, biomedical scientists, health policy planners, and medical societies from about 1850 to the present.

Tory marvels at how medicine has evolved over the years from herbals to synthetic drugs, for example, and takes inspiration from physicians whose careers challenged the norm. (“Leonidas Berry should not be forgotten,” Tory said. “I’m impressed by how he fought for civil rights in the medical field.”)

When not at work, Tory is a travel photographer and a passionate genealogist. She is writing a book about her great-great-great grandmother’s family based largely on letters they exchanged with Tory’s great-great uncle, who joined the California Gold Rush in 1852, moving to San Francisco from Baltimore in hopes of striking it rich. (He didn’t.)

Tory’s story, of course, is just one of 1,700 here at NLM. Each of the women and men who works here brings to the job talents, skills, and a backstory, applying them to NLM’s mission, the work of their teams, and our overall success.

I enjoy meeting our staff, whether via formal or impromptu meetings.  So, to my NLM colleagues, the next time you see me in the hallway or on campus, please introduce yourself. Together we will be moving this great Library forward.

The more people I meet, the more I know I have a lot of company walking in wonder.

Happy Birthday, Blog!

Today marks one year since we launched Musings on the Mezzanine.

Surprisingly, I’ve found that writing for it has often been the high point of my week.

I like having a way to communicate important happenings here at NLM. I also like using the blog as a way to wrestle with ideas. Many times I have been puzzling about how to approach a managerial challenge or make some headway with a project only to find that writing a blog post reveals a fresh perspective or new direction. Sometimes I write directly about what I’m mulling over; other times it’s as if my brain is working in parallel, focused in part on the story I am telling and in part elsewhere, sifting and winnowing through that vexing work issue.

Do you have a favorite post? I have many. Indeed, I probably like all of them, but sometimes one or another holds special meaning. We announced the re-design of the BD2K data science program through this blog back in January. In June, I shared reminiscences of my good friend, Judith Caruthers, and for a bit, this long-gone friend came back to life for me. I  introduced you to the great civil rights leaders during Black History Month, and later took you on my vacation pilgrimage through some of the civil rights shrines in the South. We said goodbye to Betsy Humphreys and honored the great Joe Leiter through this blog. And I introduced you to my family, my colleagues, and the important work here at the National Library of Medicine.

I have been delighted to offer the “bully pulpit” of Mezzanine, as we call it, to others who have something important to say to our community. Whether it is about the journey through the Associates Fellowship program, the significant role of hospital libraries, the next generation of clinical decision support, or confirming the Internet in space, these guest bloggers have brought their unique voices and perspectives, and for this I am grateful. Insights about our NLM resources are best conveyed by those closest to them, and I am immensely thankful to NLM colleagues Joyce Backus, Dina Demner-Fushman, Kathel Dunn, Ashley Hintz, Jeff Reznick, Fred Wood, and others who took the time to tell our story.

Sometimes I re-read old blog posts. They’ve helped me track the trajectory of my first year, and I love looking at the pictures and reading the comments. I sometimes wonder what prompted me to delve in to a particular theme, often reminiscing on the spark—a conversation with a staff member, a painting at an exhibition—that led to a specific post.

This blog would not be possible without the energy, vision, and skills of my colleague Mary Ann Leonard. Mary Ann, a librarian-turned-communications specialist, encourages me, cajoles me, and even inspires me to use this blog to increase your engagement with NLM. She helps me find my voice, and, many times, translates that voice into understandable prose, accompanied by informative and interesting pictures. Thanks, Mary Ann!

At one point over the summer we considered changing the pace of the blog, maybe posting only every other week, but the urge to connect, to persuade, to tell our story, runs too strong, so every Tuesday morning at 9 AM I hold fast to my sacred time and write the next blog post.

So next Tuesday, or the Tuesday after that, what would you like to see me address in this blog? Or just as importantly, who out there needs a “bully pulpit” to share your ideas or concerns about medical libraries, health information, open access, health disparities, or anything else of interest to the NLM community? I invite you to propose an idea, draft a post, and tell the world.

I get to do this every week, and it’s wonderful, so join the party! I can’t promise cake, but the conversations are excellent.