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Open Access Highly Accessed Methodology

The comparative recall of Google Scholar versus PubMed in identical searches for biomedical systematic reviews: a review of searches used in systematic reviews

Wichor M Bramer1*, Dean Giustini2, Bianca MR Kramer3 and PF Anderson4

Author Affiliations

1 Erasmus MC - University Medical Center Rotterdam, Medical Library, PO Box 2040, 3000 CA, Rotterdam, The Netherlands

2 The University of British Columbia, UBC Biomedical Branch Library, Gordon and Leslie Diamond Health Care Centre, 2775 Laurel Street, Floor 2, Vancouver, BC V5Z 1 M9, Canada

3 Utrecht University Library, PO Box 80125, 3508, TC Utrecht, The Netherlands

4 University of Michigan, Taubman Health Sciences Library, 1135 E Catherine St, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-5726, USA

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Systematic Reviews 2013, 2:115  doi:10.1186/2046-4053-2-115

Published: 23 December 2013

Abstract

Background

The usefulness of Google Scholar (GS) as a bibliographic database for biomedical systematic review (SR) searching is a subject of current interest and debate in research circles. Recent research has suggested GS might even be used alone in SR searching. This assertion is challenged here by testing whether GS can locate all studies included in 21 previously published SRs. Second, it examines the recall of GS, taking into account the maximum number of items that can be viewed, and tests whether more complete searches created by an information specialist will improve recall compared to the searches used in the 21 published SRs.

Methods

The authors identified 21 biomedical SRs that had used GS and PubMed as information sources and reported their use of identical, reproducible search strategies in both databases. These search strategies were rerun in GS and PubMed, and analyzed as to their coverage and recall. Efforts were made to improve searches that underperformed in each database.

Results

GS’ overall coverage was higher than PubMed (98% versus 91%) and overall recall is higher in GS: 80% of the references included in the 21 SRs were returned by the original searches in GS versus 68% in PubMed. Only 72% of the included references could be used as they were listed among the first 1,000 hits (the maximum number shown). Practical precision (the number of included references retrieved in the first 1,000, divided by 1,000) was on average 1.9%, which is only slightly lower than in other published SRs. Improving searches with the lowest recall resulted in an increase in recall from 48% to 66% in GS and, in PubMed, from 60% to 85%.

Conclusions

Although its coverage and precision are acceptable, GS, because of its incomplete recall, should not be used as a single source in SR searching. A specialized, curated medical database such as PubMed provides experienced searchers with tools and functionality that help improve recall, and numerous options in order to optimize precision. Searches for SRs should be performed by experienced searchers creating searches that maximize recall for as many databases as deemed necessary by the search expert.

Keywords:
Bibliographic databases; Information retrieval; Systematic reviews; Methodology; Literature searching; Reproducibility