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Repeat After Me

22 Aug


Reproducibility is the ability of an entire experiment or study to be reproduced, either by the researcher or by someone else working independently. It is one of the main principles of the scientific method and relies on ceteris paribus. Wikipedia

I was going to start this post with a similar statement in my own words, but couldn’t resist the chance to quote Latin. It always makes you sound so smart. But regardless of whether these are a Wikipedia author’s words or my own, the point is the same – one of the foundations of good science is the ability to reproduce the results.

My work for the neuroimaging project involves developing a process for researchers in this field to cite their data in such a way that makes their work more easily reproducible. The current practice of citing data sets alone doesn’t always make reproducibility possible. A researcher might take different images from a number of different data sets to create an entirely new data set, in which case citing the previous sets in whole doesn’t tell exactly which images are being used. Thus, this gap can make the final research harder to replicate, as well as more difficult to review. We think that we may have a way to help fix this problem and that’s what I’ve been working on for the past few months.

At the same time, I’ve been working on a systematic review with the members of the mammography study team. This work has me locating and reading and discussing a whole slew of articles about the use of telephone call reminders to increase the rate of women receiving a mammogram within current clinical guidelines. It also has me wondering about the nature of clinical research and the concept of reproducible science, for in all of my work, I’ve yet to come across any two studies that are exactly alike. In other words, it doesn’t seem to be common practice for anyone to repeat anyone else’s study. And I can’t help but wonder why this is so.

I imagine it has something to do with funding. Will a funding agency award money to a proposal that seeks to repeat something; something unoriginal? Surely they are more apt to look to fund new ideas.

Maybe it has to do with scientific publishing. Like funding agencies, publishers probably much prefer to publish new ideas and new findings. Who wants to read an article that says the same thing as one they read last year?

Of course, it may also be that researchers look to improve on previous studies, rather than simply repeat them. This is what I see in all of the papers I’ve found for this particular systematic review. The methods are tweaked from study to study; the populations differ just a bit, the length of time varies, etc. It makes sense. The goal of this body of research is to determine what intervention works the best and in changing things slightly, you might just find the answer. What has me baffled about this process, though, is that as we continue to tweak this aspect or that aspect of a study’s methodology, when and/or how do we ever discover what aspect actually works and then put it into practice? 

Working on this particular review, I’ve collected easily 50+ relevant articles, yet as we pull them together – consolidate them to discover any conclusions – the task seems, at times, impossible. Too often, despite the relevancy of the articles to the question asked, what you really end up comparing is apples to oranges. How does this get to the heart of scientific discovery? How does it influence or generate “best practice”? I can’t help but wonder.

Yesterday, during my library’s monthly journal club, we discussed an article that had been recommended reading to me by one of the principal investigators on the mammography study. How to Read a Systematic Review and Meta-analysis and Apply the Results to Patient Care, is the latest User’s Guide on the subject from the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). It prompted a lively session about everything from how research is done, to how medical students are taught to read the literature, to how the media portrays medical news. I recommend it.

Of course, there are many explanations to my question and many factors at play. My wondering and our journal club discussion doesn’t afford any concrete solution and/or answer, still I feel it’s a worthwhile topic for medical librarians to think about. If you have any thoughts, please keep the discussion going in the comments section below.

The Limitations of Self-Service Start with “Self”

9 May

I went to my public library last weekend. It was the first time that I’d been there in several months and “WOW!” was I in for some surprises. The first thing that I noticed was the space that used to be the Friends of the Library’s book store was now reconfigured and contained a really long series/system of conveyor belts and other such equipment. Bright red. My first thought was that they’d purchased an on-demand printer, the kind that prints copies of books that a library doesn’t have right there on the spot. “Cool!”, I thought. But then I saw a sign that explained that this was the new material return system. Quite fancy, indeed. 

Next, I walked the few steps forward into the main area and noticed the entire front desk was gone. The check-out stations, the reserve shelves, the people there to help… all gone. In its place was a cafe stand with coffee, tea, and assorted other goodies, some tables and chairs, and a very nice new bookstore for the Friends group. Then I saw an “Information Center” (round) prominently placed in the middle of the main entry. It was staffed with several people, each one of them helping patrons. I saw more self-serve check-out counters/machines for videos, DVDs, and books. I saw more stand-alone computer stations for searching the library catalog. In brief, I saw a complete “Do It Yourself” library.

The DIY movement is big, you know. You can check-out your own groceries. You can add channels to your cable package through your remote control. You can serve up your own yogurt at the frozen yogurt store. And of course, you can pump your own gas. This we’ve been doing forever.

Back in the 50s and 60s, my grandfather, Granddaddy Gore, owned a service station in Alexandria, Virginia. It was right on Route 1, the main thoroughfare into and out of Washington, DC. I remember stories my granddaddy told of senators and members of congress, and often their drivers, stopping in for service on their way to and from work. We used to kid him that he knew everyone in Alexandria and it really wasn’t much of an exaggeration. Friendly and outgoing, Granddaddy Gore would strike up a conversation with anyone. When I delivered his eulogy, a number of years ago now, I said, “The world is a little less friendlier today, without Granddaddy in it.” 

Granddaddy Gore_ESSO Pics_Page_2

Gore’s Esso Servicecenter

I thought of my grandfather and his SERVICEcenter this past week after visiting my public library.  I thought of him again as I was putting gas in my car this morning and couldn’t get the darned gas cap off, spending a good 10-minutes prying the door open with a screwdriver. And as I thought about how much we’ve replaced with self-service in our lives, I thought about some of the things that we’ve given up for the sake of “convenience.” 

My own library has moved many once-mediated tasks to self-service. It makes good sense, economically. You really don’t need people to staff a desk and check-out books now and then. You don’t need a person to get a reserve item for a medical student. We’re an academic health sciences library. We don’t check out many books and we serve a bunch of people who are used to doing things themselves. Their way. And that’s A-OK by me. 

However, as I sat in a planning meeting for a symposium that the mammography study team is hosting in a couple of weeks and I listened to the discussion between the researchers, the representatives from Quantitative Health Sciences, the representative from Information Services, and the representative from the Library (moi) each offer our input and stake our claims to the aspects of data management we provide, I thought again about my grandfather’s servicecenter and what perhaps is an unplanned (and unwanted) repercussion to our self-service world… we do everything ourselves

"How can I help you?"

“How can I help you?”

Now don’t get me wrong, the idea of self-sufficiency is a good one, for sure. It’s good to know how to do things for yourself. It saves time and effort and money. It saves the hassle of fitting into someone else’s schedule. It saves the embarrassment of admitting you don’t know how to do something that you think you should.

But does it?

Are our efforts at doing everything ourselves really the most efficient? When multiple people end up duplicating work, are we really saving money? When you continually have to teach yourself something new, rather than going to someone who already knows it, are you saving yourself any time and/or any effort?

As I’ve written in the past, I believe that one of the biggest hurdles preventing us from making great strides in research (in many things) is communication. People simply don’t know what other people know. They don’t know what other people do. And when you don’t know these things and you live in a culture that promotes DIY behavior, that’s exactly what you end up getting, i.e. everyone doing everything for themselves. And more than a little frustrated in the process.

I once took an auto mechanics class in the adult learning program of a local public school system, just so I’d know how to change the oil in my car. And I did it. I changed the oil in my car. Twice. After crawling under my car, getting filthy dirty, trying to find the right place to recycle used motor oil, I figured that really this is a job better suited to the folks at the oil change place. The folks that do this every day. The folks that have the skills and the tools and the expertise to change my oil in under 30-minutes. I’m glad I learned how to do it, but I’m more glad that they exist to do it for me. 

Making a House Call

Making a House Call

As we find our places on research teams and in other settings that allow us the opportunity to say, “You know, I can do that for you. That’s really what I know how to do,” the more value librarians will add to the working order of things. When it comes to information, data, and knowledge management, there are a thousand steps to take and tasks to be done. No one group needs to do them all and surely no three groups need to be doing them all! I was incredibly frustrated when I first stepped out of that planning meeting, but afterward saw that it was a great opportunity to begin really dissecting these tasks and processes, and figuring out which of us does what part(s) best. Once we know that and can communicate it widely to the research community here, we’ll greatly improve the work we do. And I’m glad to report that we’re on our way in this task.