Get the latest articles and downloads sent to your inbox in a monthly newsletter.

Get the latest articles and downloads sent to your inbox in a monthly newsletter.

Providing literature support as part of the biomedical research team

By Pamela Shaw, Northwestern University | Feb 28, 2017

Images of Bolivia from Steven Schuetz's blog

Electronic publication of scholarly literature has been a boon for academic researchers: more journals have entered the scholarly publishing landscape and more literature than ever before is available online. Conversely, searching for manuscripts and retrieving relevant results is more difficult due to the sheer volume of literature published. Biomedical researchers are faced with tens of thousands of results for imprecise searches in databases such as PubMed and Google Scholar, and often become frustrated with searches that produce too many (or too few) useful results. With these circumstances the librarian’s role on the biomedical research team has become more valuable now than ever before. 



Role of the librarian


Librarians can conduct a wide range of literature searches in support of medical research:


  • A scoping search — Team members ask what literature is available on a topic of interest for new research development. The librarian may do some pre-evaluation of the results of the search to exclude obviously irrelevant manuscripts, and provide a summary of search terms, collected abstracts and, in some cases, full text results retrievable from a shared folder (in Box,1 Dropbox,2 or a shared drive) or a shared bibliographic management software library (such as EndNote,3 Mendeley,4 RefWorks5).


  • Comprehensive background search — This search may support journal manuscript publications or grant proposals. The librarian will develop a systematic search strategy and search across several literature databases to retrieve as much relevant literature as is required by the team to provide an introduction and background for the manuscript. Abstracts and full text can be shared as described in the scoping search above.


  • Systematic review — Librarians supporting a systematic review will employ more rigorous systematization and documentation of search strategies. Searches are applied across several databases, but the librarian will not usually do any pre-screening of results retrieved from these searches. The systematic review team of subject experts is responsible for screening the literature results, applying exclusion criteria and establishing a body of references for the systematic review. Sharing of results is done via many platforms, including those mentioned above, but also via specialized systematic review tools such as Covidence,6 RevMan7 and others. Systematic review services are provided by many libraries.8,9 At our institution, we have noticed a marked rise in systematic review activity by our clinical investigators.



Expertise of the librarian


Providing literature search support to research teams is a valuable opportunity for librarians to be involved in institutional research. The librarian does not need to have deep subject expertise in the area being investigated, but must have strong skills in literature database selection, resource evaluation and search strategy development.


It would be a budgetary impossibility for each library to hire a deep subject expert for each discipline. While subject familiarity and expertise are beneficial to understanding the “lingo” of a discipline, most libraries do employ subject liaisons who become familiar with this lingo and disciplinary needs. It has always been my opinion that librarians are often like the statisticians on a research team: we apply the skills of our trade across numerous subject specialties. Our PhD and MD faculty have deep knowledge in their fields of study, but they rely upon us to apply our knowledge of literature searching to support their own subject expertise.



Case study: Providing literature search support for geographically dispersed teams


For several years, I have provided literature search support to the Northwestern Trauma and Surgical Initiative (NTSI),10  a team of researchers and clinicians whose goal is to develop trauma and surgical training initiatives in the United States and abroad. Team members range in experience from undergraduate students about to enter medical school to senior research faculty at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. Team members are often deployed to developing countries for weeks to years to establish trauma training programs and emergency medical services.


An example of such an endeavor is the Bolivian Trauma Initiative. Bolivia’s beautiful mountains (photos above) are home to some of the most treacherous roads in the world, resulting in vehicle accidents with traumatic injuries. A goal of the Bolivian Trauma Initiative is to establish a training program for laypersons and first responders to improve survival after traumatic incidents. 


This remote location presents a collaboration challenge: team members are geographically displaced from their “home” library resources, and internet connections are intermittent. Because of this disconnect from reliable access to literature databases, the team relies on shared resource libraries prepopulated with results from searches conducted by the librarian. In addition to the Bolivian Trauma Initiative, I support several other NTSI team projects. The team calls upon me to conduct searches several times a year (about 5-10 new searches a year). The results of these searches, along with PDFs of full text manuscripts, are placed in a shared Mendeley private group, organized by search topic using Mendeley’s tagging system, and shared with team members by private group invitation. This solution has proven to be a great success, since team members can access manuscripts and download them to their own computers in the few minutes they may have available internet access, and can annotate and contribute to the shared literature in the library.


Mendeley Private Group



Benefits of being a team member


Working closely with a research team has many benefits for the librarian. Beyond exposure to the research landscape of the institution, librarians enjoy greater visibility with the team and subsequently may receive new invitations from other teams seeking search expertise. Librarians contributing to search methodology and manuscript preparation for publications are often included as co-authors on manuscripts. Finally, the sense of satisfaction from providing needed search expertise and saving the team members’ valuable time is perhaps the most rewarding part of team participation.



  1. Box. Available at: (Accessed: 22nd February 2017)
  2. Dropbox. Available at: (Accessed: 22nd February 2017)
  3. EndNote. Available at: (Accessed: 22nd February 2017)
  4. Mendeley. Available at: (Accessed: 22nd February 2017)
  5. RefWorks. Available at: (Accessed: 22nd February 2017)
  6. Covidence. Available at: (Accessed: 23rd February 2017)
  7. RevMan 5. Available at: (Accessed: 23rd February 2017)
  8. Ludeman, E., Downton, K., Shipper, A. G. & Fu, Y. Developing a Library Systematic Review Service: A Case Study. Med. Ref. Serv. Q. 34, 173–180 (2015).
  9. Gore, G. C. & Jones, J. Systematic Reviews and Librarians : A Primer for Managers. Partnersh. Can. J. Libr. Inf. Pract. Res. 10, 1–16 (2015).
  10. Northwestern Trauma & Surgical Initiative (NTSI). Available at: (Accessed: 23rd February 2017)