Why can’t databases be more user-friendly? A rant

I’m going to start with a warning here. This is a rant, and I will not even pretend to know all about this subject or that I intend to be all scientific and unbiased here. I’m not. This, mesdames et messieurs, is a rant from start to finish. You are hereby forewarned.

A big part of my job is to teach and tutor students and staff, and it is usually something like database searching, critical thinking, academic writing, systematic reviews, reference and ethical use of sources etc. I always try to teach the students the mindset behind the databases, not just where to click, because.. as we know.. things tend to move around anyway. I figure that if I try to focus more on the mindset and the methods for searching, it is easier to catch up when a database has a new interface etc. However, sometimes the databases in question are so little user-friendly that even people who teach how to use them (talking about myself here) are just dumbfounded. Seriously, why is that? Why do these companies make it so hard for us?

This week, I have been working on a systematic review with an associate professor at my university. We are writing an article together, and I am involved in every part, but the searches themselves naturally fall to me. I have been working on a concept map, I have had it peer-reviewed, I have done dozens of trials in various databases, and this week, the “real” job is being done. This should have been a pretty straight-forward job seeing as I have done detailed preparations etc. However, this is not the case at all. These are some of the things I have struggled with this week (and any other time I have done systematic reviews):

  • Different search mechanics in almost every database I use. This is not new, but seriously, can’t we all just agree on some basic rules here? Could we at least agree that ? is always used for masking, * is always used for truncation, truncation can be used in all databases, double quotation marks always signals a string and this works in every database. I mean.. just a thing like agreeing on some basic mechanics would be great.
  • Different thesauruses and taxonomies. MeSH for Ovid MEDLINE and Cochrane, Cinahl headings from CINAHL, Emtree for Embase, APA for PsycInfo, no thesaurus for Scopus etc. etc. I realise, being a librarian, that different content needs a compatible thesaurus, but seriously, the differences between some of these are just minimal, and it makes my job ten times harder.
  • Not enough functionality. When I started my current job many, many moons ago, my favourite database was ScienceDirect. Not that I liked Elsevier any better then than I do now, but it was easy to use for those who just wanted a simple search, and it still could cater to my more advanced needs because it also had an expert search functionality. Now, however, SD is about as useful to me as a violin is to a plummer. Honestly, their “advanced search” is an abomination. They sold us librarians down the river in order to make their product more like google. Seriously, I can now only use a few boolean operators, and there is no use in trying to search in chunks and use the search history to combine. Oh no, not even that. Sage journals online is just as bad. Why? Why not give the option for a simple “googlesque” search box AND an expert search. Seriously, why?
  • Cumbersome export. I had to take a break yesterday to cool down my frustration at CINAHL. I had something like 700 articles that I wanted to export to my reference manager so that I could get them into the pool of articles for the systematic review. 700 articles is not that unreasonable when dealing with systematic reviews, so I went on my way to export. Well, this database will only show you 50 article at the time on one page – AND it requires you to put everything in an export folder before you can get it to download. There is no checkbox to choose all, so you have to move 50 at the time into a folder before you can export the whole list. If you try to put the search expression into the folder (for instance S15 AND S25 AND S30, which would be the last line of your search), it only saves the search string itself, it does not move the results into the chapter. Honestly, CINAHL, what are you doing to us? I ended up making a special folder, moving 50 articles at the time and then exporting to EndNote. It took more time than putting the search in itself.
  • Finding saved searches. I do a lot of searching for staff members and PhD students, and of course, I like to save these searches so that I can easily get them back up if I need to help the same staff member again later. In Ovid MEDLINE, you have to log in (and when you are in, all you see in your screen is “modify account”, so I almost got a heart attack when I couldn’t see my saved searches), then click “My workspaces” in a tab, then click my saved searches. I mean.. was that really necessary, Ovid? It is even worse in CINAHL, where I actually had to google to find the right button to click. You have to click “Search history” underneath the search box to find it. Usually, Search history, signals the searches you have performed that session, and the Saved searches button is usually in the top right corner, so you know.. didn’t even think about it.

And these are just some of the issues. Is this as important as finding a cure for cancer, finding solutions for the climate crisis or making peace in the world? No, of course not. But.. I spend a significant portion of my day at work, and I try to work as efficiently and well as I can. Stupid things like bad interface or needlessly cumbersome search mechanics should be easy to solve. I am a librarian by trade, and I have worked with these and other databases for years, and I still find them little user-friendly. I can only guess at how an undergraduate student or a PhD student feels in this area. No wonder they call me, often almost in tears of frustration. All I can think is, if the databases are not made for me and not for the students – who are they for?

End of rant.

Now, a bit of ice tea to cool off both physically and mentally 🙂

ice tea on the veranda
Ice tea on the veranda

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