Searching Your Symptoms: Three Things You Should Know


Internet by The Noun Project, Public Domain

We all search our symptoms. We want to understand what’s happening to our health and figure out what the next steps are. Rest and fluids? A trip to the doctor’s office? There’s lots of debate on the implications of this common practice, so I’ve singled out three things that the literature tells us to be very careful of when searching while sick

  1. There’s a decent chance the internet will misdiagnose you. A recent article published suggests that only 14% of websites gave a correct diagnosis after searching Google, Bing and Ask for common diagnoses. The majority of websites included the correct diagnosis as a potential culprit, but few singled out the correct condition.
  2. Your searches are personalized to YOU. Also known as the Filter Bubble, many of the major search engines track what you’ve searched and tailor your search results to you. In other words, two people could search the same symptoms but get different answers. We know that the major search engines do this, but I don’t think anyone knows the extent of it. Last November I was in a classroom with about 20 students who conducted an identical search in Google and all received nearly identical results, with the exception of users who visit primarily websites written in a different language (their results were all in their preferred language). Take this little “experiment” with a grain of salt, of course.
  3. Your searches might be used for secondary research. This one isn’t necessarily bad, just something we should to be aware of. Google Flu calculates flu trends by keeping track of the number of people who search the flu and all it’s flu-like symptoms. What does this mean for you? Google is keeping track of what you are searching and using that data for secondary purposes, in this case Google Flu.

Next time you do a bit of web-sleuthing and Google your symptoms, keep in mind that your results are likely biased and imperfect!

Rewarding Open Access – Nominations for the Accelerating Science Award Program

A new award, with major sponsorship from Google, the Public Library of Science (PLoS) and the Wellcome Trust, seeks to reward pioneers for the social good byawarding $30,000 to three people who have “applied scientific research published through open access” – in ANY field – for the benefit of society.

Open Access Logo

The official award site is here, and the application period closes June 15th, 2013 – so hop to it!

Nominees should be people and/or teams that have:

  • Used
  • Applied
  • or remixed scientific research published through open access.

Examples of nominees (so far) include:

bioinformatics team repurposes existing source codes used for searching genomic data associated with individual cancer tumors to create a new open source algorithm and web tool that can search multiple tumor types simultaneously, enabling faster and more comprehensive searches by oncologists for use in clinical treatment of cancer patients.


patient advocate creates a new web community for individuals with a rare genetic disorder and their families; this website curates existing and newly available open access research about causes and treatment protocols, and offers interpretative science articles and a user forum to help nonscientist readers better understand the science presented.

Some rules*:

  • Teams are eligible
  • Self-nominations are totally kosher

Nomination forms are here, and there is an award FAQ as well.

*NOT the full suite of rules – see the entire set of guidelines here.

Follow the conversation at #SciASAP.

The award is also supported by:


Google Lecture Series: Victor Stecher on new directions in health informatics

When: (tomorrow) Friday, March 29th, 2013 from 3:30-5 pm

Where: Due to the North Quad flood, this lecture has been moved to Space 2435 (…also in North Quad).
3100 North Quad – Ehrlicher Room (see this post for more detailed directions to finding the Ehrlicher Room)
Join Victor Strecher (my 2 cents: a truly phenomenal lecturer from when he spoke in my Health Informatics course last semester) discussing “On Purpose: A New Direction for Health and Health Informatics“:

Long-held assumptions and beliefs about life, death, disease, health, and risk — subjects on which Strecher has been writing and speaking for years — are questioned.  This presentation takes a journey through ancient and modern philosophy, literature, psychology, genetics, neuroscience, and Egyptology, where you will be introduced to an unlikely role model:  a six-legged superhero with a unique relationship to a ball of excrement.  In the presentation, Strecher will also preview a platform of multimedia strategies designed to help people make meaningful changes in their lives.

Find out more about the lecture and Dr. Strecher’s background on the event page. This lecture  is sponsored by:

The Internet Reacts: Hathi Trust vs. the Author’s Guild

HathiTrust logo

HathiTrust logo from MLibrary CC BY 2.0

I was pleasantly surprised last week to see an email that the judge in the Author’s Guild case against several universities (U of M and the Hathi Trust included) had ruled, quite in favor of our efforts, it seems. Since then there has been a flurry of activity on Twitter (check out @HathiTrust and #AGvHT), and tons of media coverage. I thought I’d consolidate some of the responses to the ruling and how other organizations are  reacting, for your ready reference!

The Association of Research Libraries (ARL) is hosting a free webinar covering the decision, tomorrow, Wednesday October 24th, from 2 – 3 pm EST. Moderated by ARL’s Director of Public Policy Initiatives, Brandon Butler, the webinar will feature discussion from:

  • Jonathan Band, of policybandwidth, an expert in copyright law and the co-author of the Library Copyright Alliance amicus brief in the HathiTrust case
  • Peter Jaszi, Professor of Law at American University’s Washington College of Law, as well as co-facilitator of the Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Academic and Research Libraries and a member of the legal team that represented the National Federation of the Blind
  • Dan Goldstein, a partner at Brown, Goldstein & Levy, acts as counsel for the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) and has initiated a national legal campaign to ensure access to technology
  • Jason M. Schultz, Assistant Clinical Professor of Law and Director of the Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic at the University of California Berkeley School of Law

Register for the webinar here.

And now the consolidation of responses!

From the University Record, Judge Baer’s ruling “upholds the library’s digitization practices and use of in-copyright materials as lawful and noninfringing.” Search indexing is also held up as fair use, and Publisher’s Weekly writes the “HathiTrust ruling could well become a landmark in copyright. The case is not yet over, and future cases could reinterpret or limit it in important ways. But it landed with a big splash, and its ripples could reach far indeed.”

If you’re legally inclined, you can read the full opinion here.

The Library Copyright Alliance comments on the decision.
An infographic (think combo timelines/family tree) on the Google Books litigation from policybandwith & ARL.

An incisive overview from New York Law School’s James Grimmelman, published soon after the decision.

The Chronicle of Higher Education weighs in with posts to its opinions blog on universities as “vast copy machines,” and its technology section on how this decision could pave the way for expanded roles for digital libraries.

Publisher’s Weekly summarized what the decision means to various groups.

Even The Atlantic weighed in!

A key part of the ruling was establishing that access to students with print disabilities was transformative use, and is highlighted in this post from the Global Alliance on Accessible Technologies & Environments.

If that isn’t enough reading for you, HathiTrust itself has compiled reactions on Storify (and if you’ve yet to see Storify, head over just to see the next big thing in digital curation).

The Gloves Come Off: Google Scholar vs. PubMed

Logos courtesy of PubMed and Google

An interesting article has been making the rounds of health library listservs. Comparing search results from PubMed and Google Scholar based on 4 clinical questions, the authors (from Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center and Carnegie Mellon University) conclude:

“PubMed searches and Google Scholar searches often identify different articles. In this study, Google Scholar articles were more likely to be classified as relevant, had higher numbers of citations and were published in higher impact factor journals. The identification of frequently cited articles using Google Scholar for searches probably has value for initial literature searches.”

This is where those critical analysis skills come in handy, and it helps to know some of the behind-the-scenes workings of the tools you’re working with – in this case, PubMed and Google Scholar. Google’s immense popularity – especially among students – makes this a highly relevant discussion, and so I’ve made a quick comparison table that addresses much of the umbrage that has poured out (in librarian circles, in any case) in response to the article:

  PubMed Google Scholar
Transparency: What’s being searched? MEDLINE dataset academic papers from sensible websites
Search result ranking By date of publication Super-secret relevancy algorithm

There are undoubtedly benefits to using Google Scholar – you can capture things outside the scope of your more traditional, published biomedical lit, including dissertations, conference abstracts, posters, and other content that can go into institutional repositories (such as the University of Michigan’s Deep Blue) but not into the MEDLINE dataset.

BUT. There are also serious drawbacks to using Google Scholar, and personally I think this is what users really need to understand. One MEDLIB-L discussion participant put it succinctly:

“you’re searching a database that you have no editorial definition for or ability to reproduce your results and/or search string.” 

Google is famous (notorious?) for not divulging exactly what its bots crawl & index – we’ve covered it briefly before when Scholar introduced a version of citation metrics. That means if you’re searching with the assumption that your search is grabbing everything – well I hesitate to say that you’re wrong, but you certainly can’t be certain.

Knowing how your tool works on the back end is important, because it will affect your search results, but that knowledge is not a substitute for covering your bases. The bottom line? Don’t default to one search tool – especially if your search is meant to be thorough or comprehensive.

Google Power Searcher Online Course

Tomorrow (July 10, 2012) Google launches an online seminar, Power Searching with Google. Billed as “a short course on becoming a great internet searcher,” this massive open online course (or MOOC, a la Stanford/UM fame with Coursera) promises to give you the “many more tips, tricks and tactics you can use to find exactly what you’re looking for, when you most need it“.

“Physics of Light and Shadow” © Dennis Wilkinson 2012 CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The course consists of six 50 minute modules, and after passing a few “assessments” you can get a certificate of completion, though I’m betting that the time saved with more effective searching will be reward enough.

Registration lasts until July 16th, but Google recommends you sign up (via the course site, linked below) prior to the release of  the first module tomorrow. The course will run through July 23rd.

Visit (and register through) the course site, or read the official Google blog announcement.

A New Service to the Google Scholar Family

In spite of the April 1st announcement date, it’s no April Fool’s joke – Google is indeed adding a ranking service to Google Scholar. Dubbed Google Scholar Metrics, think of it as the “scholarly” version of Page Rank, only instead of measuring popularity through links, Google Scholar Metrics will use citations.

In Google Scholar’s blog announcement of the new Metrics feature, software engineer Helder Suzuki wrote of aspirations to “help authors worldwide as they consider where to publish their latest article”. An admirable goal, undoubtedly, but there are necessary caveats! Authors (not to mention researchers) using Google Scholar Metrics should consider what is being ranked (the 5 year h-index and h-median), what is included in that calculation, and the update frequency. More details on all of those breakdowns are on Google Scholar’s Metric help page, and The Scholarly Kitchen offers and ever-eloquent and insightful analysis.
See what others are saying about Google Scholar Metrics:
·         Significance Magazine
·         Scholarship 2.0 Blog

Learn about Google’s Upcoming Research Computing Tools April 26

Reposted from the Office of Research CyberInfrastructure News and Events:

Google’s Manager for Computational Discovery for Science, Joe Hellerstein, will discuss their upcoming resources for computational research on April 26, 2012, at 2:00 at Chesebrough Auditorium in the Chrysler Center.

Products soon to be released to U-M researchers include:

  • massive computing and storage capabilities
  • services to make powerful research tools both more widely available and easier to use
  • scalable web services that enable access to research code, scientific tools and methods

We are on the brink of a potentially revolutionary era of computing, and Google has asked for University of Michigan to collaborate in this effort.

Please RSVP if you plan to attend.