Technical development of PubMed Interact: an improved interface for MEDLINE/PubMed searches
© Muin and Fontelo; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2006
Received: 03 July 2006
Accepted: 03 November 2006
Published: 03 November 2006
PubMed Interact is a highly interactive Web-based search application for MEDLINE/PubMed that explores recent trends in Web technologies like DOM tree manipulation and Ajax. It may become a valuable technical development for online medical search applications.
This research continues to investigate innovations in user-computer interface for online storage and retrieval systems in medical research. The goal of the project is to advance the development of a Web-based medical search tool that can enhance user interaction with the MEDLINE/PubMed database and push to the forefront the different strategies and filters in Entrez PubMed that often remain hidden from novice users, such as age groups, clinical study filters and systematic reviews. The long-term objective is to study and implement clean and effective user interfaces for MEDLINE/PubMed that increases utilization and improves search outcomes without overwhelming novice users and limiting the workflow of advanced users. This manuscript reports the development, implementation and technical evaluation of the research application, PubMed Interact.
PubMed Interact makes extensive use of DHTML, DOM tree manipulation and Ajax scripting to enhance interactivity and productivity. Although it extracts several features from SLIM, many of its integral features allow interactions with the retrieved set of citations. We hope this project will contribute to ongoing efforts to improve online storage and retrieval systems for medical literature.
The publication date parameter uses two sliders: the start year slider and the end year slider. With an end year slider, searches are not limited to the current year as the permanent end date. Users can set different date ranges within the past 10 years, e.g. 1998 to 2002, or limit to one specific year, e.g. 2003. No publication date is set by default for the start year slider, i.e. no date limits. The end year slider defaults to the current year.
The PubMed database contains several subsets, among them the MEDLINE subset and the Core Clinical Journals. The journal subset slider controls options to search within the whole PubMed database, the MEDLINE database subset, or the Core Clinical Journals. Within each subset, users can further limit the search to articles with abstracts or to those with links to full-text or free full-text. The default setting searches the PubMed database without any abstract or full-text restrictions.
The age group slider is a modified version of the age group dropdown menu in the Limits page of Entrez PubMed. It reorders the limits according to age. It starts with 'Newborn' and ends with 'Adult Group'. No limits are set by default.
The methodology filter slider can limit searches to case reports, clinical study categories, or systematic reviews. The case report filter uses the publication type search tag of Entrez PubMed to limit the search. The clinical study categories, also called PubMed Clinical Queries, are 10 search methodology filters based on the works of Haynes RB et al . The systematic reviews subset is a pre-configured filter that finds citations for systematic reviews, meta-analyses, reviews of clinical trials, evidence-based medicine, consensus development conferences, and guidelines . No limits are set by default.
The MeSH mapping slider, a feature first developed in SLIM as the search mapping slider, is intended for intermediate to advance users of PubMed familiar with search tags and MeSH term operations. A customized PHP function extracts the mapped MeSH terms from the original search and modifies the search tags according to the slider setting. These modified terms are then appended to the current search to refine and redirect the search strategy. The default setting submits the search terms to the ESearch utility as entered in the text box without any modifications.
The last slider controls the number of citations to be displayed in the results list. It does not affect the search query. It merely provides users the option to display the number of retrieved citations (10, 20, 40, 60, 80 or 100).
To limit the search by subject or language, a dropdown menu below the sliders contains options for human studies, English language or both. To reload the form or reset the sliders to the default settings, users can click on the links found below the dropdown menu.
An interactive feature of the search form is the ability to preview the results count without submitting the form or reloading the page [Figure 1]. This function uses Ajax to fetch data from the server and DOM tree manipulation to display the resulting number of citations. After typing in the search terms and setting the limits, users can click on the 'Preview Count' button and the number of citations is displayed. This process can be repeated with different search terms and slider settings. This feature allows the user to quickly gauge the effectiveness of the keywords and search parameters before submitting the form.
PubMed Interact adapts two features from the results interface of SLIM: the information box and the ability to toggle the display of abstracts. An important distinction of PubMed Interact is the facility by which users can manipulate the search results.
The information box is displayed only after the search form is submitted [Figure 2 and 3]. Positioned below the search form, it provides the total number of results along with additional search information such as mapped MeSH Terms, mapped Subheadings and unmapped terms. It is intended as an educational tool for new users unfamiliar with the MeSH Thesaurus and as a search reference tool for advanced researchers.
Abstracts can be displayed or hidden from view [Figure 2 and 3]. It is possible to hide or display all abstracts as a group using links above the main results list. A link below the citation details will toggle the display for individual abstracts. An added feature in PubMed Interact is the ability to display structured abstracts. A simple PHP output function uses regular expressions to detect and display abstracts of a specific structure [Figure 3]. This facilitates reading and scanning of specific abstracts.
Removal of single citations from the search results is seldom found in Web-based medical search applications. In PubMed Interact, users can delete individual citations from the main list by clicking on a link below the citation details [Figure 2]. When a citation is deleted, it is highlighted with a light red background for a few seconds before it disappears from view and removed from the main HTML source code. The visual effect is achieved by DHTML, while removal of the citation from the HTML document is done through DOM tree manipulation. This delete function enables the user to keep only citations relevant to their search.
The 'Auto-Append Article' feature, also called A3, is linked with citation deletion. If active, the A3 function automatically retrieves the next citation in the results and appends it at the bottom of the list when a citation is deleted. The new citation data is retrieved from the local PMI domain server using Ajax scripting methods, while the action of appending and displaying that citation is done using DOM tree manipulation. All A3 processes are asynchronous and achieved without reloading the page. The appended article acquires the functionality of the original citations on the list. This feature is deactivated by default and can be activated using a checkbox at the top of the list.
PubMed Interact implements two relevance lists: high and low. These relevance lists are user-dependent and color-coded. Users can label specific citations according to relevance to the original search. Citations tagged with high relevance will have a light green background, while those with low relevance will have a light yellow background [Figure 2]. Citations without any labels will have the default white background. The relevance lists can be viewed separately using links found at the top of the main results list.
System development and implementation
A large part of script development adopted the object-oriented programming (OOP) approach. A custom set of PHP classes connect to the Entrez Programming Utilities, specifically the ESearch, EFetch and ELink tools . These PHP classes are modified XML parsers that send queries to E-Utilities and parse the retrieved XML files. The OOP approach allows developers to reuse sets of code for different functions, thus, drastically reducing the amount of code maintained and opening possibilities for expanding code functions. In PubMed Interact, the code used to get the citation details for the search is the same code used to get the details for the related articles.
The retrieved XML files are processed and stored in a local MySQL database to minimize the load on the E-Utilities servers. Instead of several remote queries to E-Utilities, the PHP scripts that retrieve data for the search results send one query and store the top 200 of the citation details regardless of the number of citations to be displayed. Thus, the A3 feature which appends new articles after a citation is deleted retrieves data from the local domain server and not from E-Utilities. The same process is used for the related articles of one citation. The details of all 10 related articles are stored in the local server and retrieved without reconnecting to the E-Utilities server.
Result and discussion
PubMed Interact is an experiment in user-computer interface. It is part of an ongoing project to make use of modern Web technologies in the development and improvement of Web-based medical search applications. The growing trend of using the Web as a platform to deliver services opens opportunities for alternative solutions in medical literature research. Web-based applications that function like traditional software, combined with rich user interface and improved user control of data, contribute to the indispensable nature of online information storage and retrieval systems for health resources.
Two important components of the trend are DOM tree manipulation and Ajax. By integrating both technologies, PubMed Interact bridges an effective search strategy with a highly-interactive interface. Users not only have the ability to modify searches by setting parameters, they can also label, delete and add from within the existing list of citations. Access to related articles in the same page also provides an additional resource for more relevant citations not found in the original search results.
The search interface of PubMed Interact exposes and facilitates the use of several search strategies available in Entrez PubMed. Some options in the Limits page of Entrez PubMed are available in the first four sliders, eliminating the need to go back and forth between pages to set search parameters. Two of the advanced search features of Entrez PubMed – the clinical study categories, also known as PubMed Clinical Queries, and the systematic reviews subset – are made available for both novice and seasoned users with the Methodology Filter slider. In Entrez PubMed, the MeSH terms and subheadings of a search are viewed from the Details tab. In PubMed Interact, the MeSH details mapped from the keywords are presented in the information box, which can then be used as guides for the MeSH Mapping slider. Several features for future integration may include adding publication types, language options and subsets and searching in the Journals and MeSH database. These efforts are consistent with the long-term aim of developing a user-computer interface for medical research that empowers novice users with interactive tools for search parameters and provides expert users with easy access to advanced search filters.
The application is available online without restrictions. The alpha version and the beta version went live in late November 2005 and February 2006, respectively. The local MySQL database of the beta version contains over 29,900 records of citations in XML format and uses 54 megabytes of disk space. A scheduled maintenance script can be implemented in the future to delete old XML records from the database and keep the storage allocation manageable. This plan is deferred until the implementation is moved out of beta phase to record benchmarks for MySQL usage.
Browser compatibility evaluation showed full functionality in Windows versions of Mozilla Firefox 1.5+, Internet Explorer 5.5+ and Opera 8.5+ and in the Linux version of Mozilla Firefox 1.5+. Some formatting inconsistencies were observed in Mac OSX versions of Mozilla Firefox 1.5+ and Safari 2.0+ but no functionality problems were noted.
The search form and citation list of the application were tested using the W3C Markup Validation Service . An unsupported element attribute for the Document Type Declaration used was reported for each slider. The validation report of the citation list accounted one recurring error for each citation. The error involves using numerical strings as id attributes for the citation divisions. Despite being reported as markup validation errors, these 'invalid codes' proved important for user-friendly functionality. They were also supported by the different browsers used for testing. Thus, they were noted down for reference but retained for use. Removing these 'invalid codes' degraded the functionality of the application.
This paper is limited to the development, implementation and technical evaluation of PubMed Interact. It does not provide empirical evidence to show increased efficiency in searching or better precision and recall for results. A formal user evaluation of the application is needed to validate the usability and benefits of an alternative PubMed search interface.
The technical evaluation of PubMed Interact employed commonly accepted procedures in Web applications, such as functionality, storage space used, markup validations and browser compatibility testing. It was not evaluated against any formal framework or standard criteria for software development.
User evaluation is valuable in the continued development of PubMed Interact. The researchers plan to do comparative studies between PubMed Interact and Entrez PubMed. Users with various levels of searching skills will perform structured and unstructured tasks. Through user interviews, online questionnaires and direct observation, the research team will assess the effectiveness of PubMed Interact as compared to Entrez PubMed in usability, performance and search outcomes. The educational impact, speed and stability of the system and the effect on searching attitudes and strategies will also be studied.
The projected study will be an opportunity to gather more information on how medical researchers interact with alternative search interfaces and obtain data on usability and functionality. User feedback will determine which features need to be improved or abandoned, and whether new functionalities should be added. As the progress of Web technologies continues, better platforms and methods will be available for further innovations in search interfaces for medical literature search.
PubMed Interact is a Web-based MEDLINE/PubMed search application that explores recent trends in Web development technologies like DOM tree manipulation and Ajax scripting methods. Users can control search parameters, refocus search strategies and modify search results easily. Many enhanced and interactive features occur at client-side and allow instant feedback without reloading or refreshing the page. PubMed Interact is a novel approach in the development of online tools for medical information research.
Availability and requirements
Project name: PubMed Interact
Project home page: http://pmi.nlm.nih.gov/interact
Operating systems: Web-based, platform-independent
License: Free, anyone may use the service
Any restrictions to use by non-academics: None
- SLIM :
Slider Interface for MEDLINE/PubMed searches
- DHTML :
- DOM :
Document Object Model
- Ajax :
- XML :
Extensible Markup Language
- HTML :
HyperText Markup Language
- MeSH :
Medical Subject Headings
- PHP :
PHP: Hypertext Preprocessor
- A3 :
- OOP :
This research was supported by the Intramural Research Program of the National Institutes of Health, the National Library of Medicine and Lister Hill National Center for Biomedical Communications.
- Muin M, Fontelo P, Liu F, Ackerman M: SLIM: an alternative Web interface for MEDLINE/PubMed searches – a preliminary study. BMC Med Inform Decis Mak. 5: 37-10.1186/1472-6947-5-37. 2005 Dec 1
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