RTD TIG Week: Representation of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research in PubMed’s Medical Subject Headings (MeSH) by Abbey Zuehlke

My name is Abbey Zuehlke, Ph.D., P.M.P. (she/her) and I am the Director of Operations at Lexical Intelligence, LLC. Over the past year I have served as the Project Manager for a team that is increasing the representation of behavioral and social sciences research terms in PubMed’s Medical Subject Headings (MeSH) vocabulary. I am delighted to share lessons learned from this project in the RTG TIG’s blog week. 

With over 2.5 million users a day and over 34 million citations and abstracts, PubMed is the premier resource for biomedical literature (About PubMed). The largest component of PubMed is MEDLINE where articles are indexed with Medical Subject Headings (MeSH), a structured vocabulary that indicates the focal area(s) of the research within each article. MeSH is a pivotal component of the PubMed search engine allowing automatic identification and retrieval of relevant articles through comparison of terms that are queried against MeSH concepts. 

Despite the value of MeSH in the categorization and extraction of biomedical research, not all research fields are represented equally. In 2020, only a small proportion of MeSH terms covered the field of Behavioral and Social Science Research (BSSR) with Psychiatry and Psychology representing only 3% of total entries and Anthropology, Education, Sociology, and Social Phenomena making up 2% of total entries. Underrepresentation of MeSH terms impacts the PubMed retrieval results as the search engine is unable to match queries with the appropriate MeSH listing, producing inaccurate results. Therefore, investigators in these fields cannot rely on PubMed to identify publications that are most important to their research questions. To ensure individuals in all fields can confidently retrieve citations relevant to their research, enhancing term coverage in the underrepresented fields in MeSH became a priority for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and BSSR community (Advancing Ontology Development and Use in the Behavioral and Social Sciences).

Our team has been working with the NIH Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (OBSSR) to increase the representation of BSSR terms in MeSH. We first identified and incorporated Social Determinants of Health (SDoH) concepts into MeSH. SDoH are conditions in the environments where people are born, live, learn, work, play, worship, and age that affect a wide range of functioning, and quality-of-life outcomes and risks (HHS SDoH). SDoH terms were collected from a variety of BSSR resources including the WHO – Social Determinants of Health, ODPHP – Social Determinants of Health, and NIH-specific lists of SDoH concepts. Duplicated terms were removed and those missing within MeSH were flagged. We then worked closely with Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) to prioritize terms for addition to MeSH. Throughout this effort our team collaborated with members of OBSSR, the National Library of Medicine and other SMEs to finalize a list of 46 SDoH terms to be added to MeSH between 2021 and 2023. In December 2021, 35 new SDoH concepts were introduced into MeSH. 

Do you know how well your field is represented in MeSH? The next time you do a PubMed search, think about what is happening under the hood and what this might mean for your search results!

Rad Resources

The American Evaluation Association is hosting Research, Technology and Development (RTD) TIG Week with our colleagues in the Research, Technology and Development Topical Interest Group. The contributions all this week to AEA365 come from our RTD TIGmembers. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this AEA365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the AEA365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an AEA365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to AEA365@eval.org. AEA365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators. The views and opinions expressed on the AEA365 blog are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the American Evaluation Association, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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