Service providers and search interfaces

Last revised: 
2017-06-07

Searching different databases will inevitably give different results (for example searching CINAHL versus searching Medline). However, the interface selected for searching each database also has important implications. Searching the same database via different interfaces can result in different results. For instance searching Embase via Embase.com or via OVID, or searching MEDLINE via Web of Science, EBSCO, OVID, or even via PubMed.

The differences in the results of searching the same database via different interfaces  can be a result of different search functionality and search syntax as well as the currency of the database in different interfaces and even the content of the database via different interfaces. For example, there are more duplicate records on OVID Embase than on Embase.com. By accessing MEDLINE via the Web of Science – citation data can be obtained. The differences between MEDLINE via OVID and via PubMed are much discussed and not only include different ways of searching but the content differs as PubMed contains more than MEDLINE with extra content such as PubMedCentral and articles before they receive full MeSH tagging (in-process citations) and books.

Most papers comparing different search interfaces for the same database are solely descriptive in nature with no evaluation of the impact on the results and thus the implications of searching via one interface as opposed to another are not formally measured. There are, however, a number of published evaluations that have gone beyond a descriptive comparison. The majority of these have compared Medline and PubMed (1, 2), although other comparisons are for CINAHL (3), The Cochrane Library (4) and AMED (5). Three studies found that the same search in the same database can vary in different interfaces, both when doing freetext searching, and also searching for keywords (3,4,5). One study compared searching Embase via Embase.com and Ovid, and found no difference in retrieved relevant articles, but Embase.com was rated easier to use (6).

In relation to PubMed – MEDLINE comparisons - PubMed contains more than MEDLINE, and may have a higher sensitivity in some cases (1,2). The time lag between PubMed and the versions of MEDLINE offered on interfaces such as Ovid or within Embase.com is also important to consider (7). 

All research around differences in database providers suffers from the problem of currency. Database interfaces are constantly being developed and improved, more so than the databases themselves. This means that comments about interfaces are time specific and may be out of date rapidly. Also, there are few studies that evaluate the performances of real life search strategies in different interfaces to the same database, comparing differences in their recall and precision, and relevant unique results, and also providing in-depth explanations of the differences.

Before searching any database, it is important to learn how each interface works (truncation, mapping to subject headings, proximity operators). For example, adjacency/proximity operators can work with different meanings in some interfaces such as Ovid and Embase.com: adj3 or NEAR/3 represent two or fewer characters between the words combined. In other interfaces, such as, Web of Science and EBSCO, the number in the proximity operator represents three or fewer characters between the words combined.

It may also be beneficial to search the same database via more than one interface. This may be particularly be the case for MEDLINE and PubMed where PubMed offers more content, but other interfaces to MEDLINE offer more control of search approaches.

Reference List

  • (1) Irvin, E. Does is matter which version of MEDLINE you search? 12th Cochrane Colloquium: Bridging the Gaps. Oct 2-6 2004. Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. [Further reference details] [Publication appraisal] [Free full text]
  • (2) Katchamart, W., Faulkner A, Feldman B,Tomlinson G, Bombardier C. PubMed had a higher sensitivity than Ovid-MEDLINE in the search for systematic reviews. J Clin Epidemiol 2011;64:805-807. [Further reference details] [Publication appraisal] [Free full text]
  • (3) Allison MM. Comparison of CINAHL via EBSCOhost, Ovid, and ProQuest. J Electron Res Med Lib. 2006;3:31-50. [Further reference details] [Publication appraisal] [Free full text]
  • (4) Craven J, Jefferies J, Kendrick J, Nicholls D, Boynton J, Frankish R. A comparison of searching the Cochrane library databases via CRD, Ovid and Wiley: implications for systematic searching and information services. Health Info Libr J. 2014;31:54-63. [Further reference details] [Publication appraisal] [Free full text]
  • (5) Younger P, Boddy  K.When is a search not a search? A comparison of searching the AMED complementary health database via EBSCOhost, OVID and DIALOG. Health Info Libr J 2009:26:126-135. [Further reference details] [Publication appraisal] [Free full text]
  • (6) Fortier KJ, Kiss N, Tongbram V. What is the optimal search engine for results from embase and medline: ovid or embase.com? Value Health 2013:16(3):A25. [Further reference details] [Publication appraisal] [Free full text]
  • (7) Boeker M., et al. Time-dependent migration of citations through PubMed and OvidSP subsets: a study on a series of simultaneous PubMed and OvidSP searches.  Stud Health Technol Inform. 2013;192:1196. [Further reference details] [Publication appraisal] [Free full text]