Book Review – Systematic Searching

The first of my fourteen books was published in 1981 and was entitled ‘Profit from Information’. It was one of the first in a series of monographs published by the Institute of Information Scientists and was about how to set up and run an information broking business. Information broking companies started to spring up in the late 1970s in the USA. They were often one person (usually one women) home businesses undertaking online searches for business and academic customers. In 1978 the British Library Research and Development Department kindly paid for me to visit information brokers in New York, Washington and San Francisco. Those were the days! The main customers of these companies were in the healthcare sector (where the objective was to achieve excellence in health care) or high technology companies checking there was no prior art. Recall was everything. I came back to the UK and set up an information research business in London, and for three years spent much of my time hunched over computer terminals working at 300 baud. Ever since that time my interest in search has been in the recall end of the spectrum, sustained by a determination to prove that I had found all the relevant information. Of course the reality was that I had to balance recall and precision, and that is very subjective.

I was therefore delighted to receive a review copy of Systematic Searching – Practical Ideas for Improving Results from Facet Publishing. Systematic searching emerged from the requirements of evidenced-based medicine To quote from the book, systematic reviews of interventions require a thorough, objective and reproducible search of a range of sources to identify as many relevant studies as possible within resource limits. It is not just about brute-force searching but having the skills to know which sources to search.

This book has 16 chapters and runs to over 300 pages. Most (but not all) the authors work in the UK clinical review sector and are clearly writing from the wealth of experience they have acquired over many years of training and practice. To give the titles of just a few of the chapters, they cover

  • Choosing the right databases and search techniques
  • Social media as a source of evidence
  • Text mining for information specialists
  • Training the next generation of information specialists
  • Collaborative working  to improve searching

The authors, editors (Paul Levy and Jenny Craven at NICE)  and the Facet production team deserve great credit for achieving a uniformity of writing style and managing to avoid too much duplication between chapters. Also obvious is the passion that the writers have for their subject and for the role of systematic searching in achieving excellence in health care. There is a very good balance between discussing published research and providing insights and advice from being professional systematic searchers. There are over thirty good case studies presented in text boxes and most chapters end with suggestions for further reading and a short bibliography. In most cases there are references to 2018, which is quite an achievement in a book published in 2020. On that basis I will forgive a failure to reference the work of Peter Pirolli and Stuart Card on information foraging in their seminal paper of 1999, a topic that also missed out in a not entirely successful index.

I have nothing but praise for this book, which reminds me that search has to deliver in business-critical situations, especially where health care and medical progress are concerned. This book is all about using the technology and does not get deep into discussions about ranking models. In general these searches are being carried out on commercial systems and there is no scope to play games with the back-end code. Given the current pandemic the timing of publication is fortuitous. Even if heath care is not your core interest reading this book will raise questions about whether in general we are putting enough skills and experience to the service of our customers.

Martin White

About Martin White
Martin White

Martin is an information scientist and the author of Making Search Work and Enterprise Search. He has been involved with optimising search applications since the mid-1970s and has worked on search projects in both Europe and North America. Since 2002 he has been a Visiting Professor at the Information School, University of Sheffield and is currently working on developing new approaches to search evaluation.

One response to “Book Review – Systematic Searching”

  1. Editorial - Informer

    […] are two book reviews in this issue, both outstanding contributions in their particular fields of systematic searching and A/B […]

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