BACKGROUND: The usefulness of Google Scholar (GS) as a bibliographic database for biomedical systematic review (SR) searching is a subject of current interest and debate in research circles. Recent research has suggested GS might even be used alone in SR searching. This assertion is challenged here by testing whether GS can locate all studies included in 21 previously published SRs. Second, it examines the recall of GS, taking into account the maximum number of items that can be viewed, and tests whether more complete searches created by an information specialist will improve recall compared to the searches used in the 21 published SRs.
METHODS: The authors identified 21 biomedical SRs that had used GS and PubMed as information sources and reported their use of identical, reproducible search strategies in both databases. These search strategies were rerun in GS and PubMed, and analyzed as to their coverage and recall. Efforts were made to improve searches that underperformed in each database.
RESULTS: GS' overall coverage was higher than PubMed (98% versus 91%) and overall recall is higher in GS: 80% of the references included in the 21 SRs were returned by the original searches in GS versus 68% in PubMed. Only 72% of the included references could be used as they were listed among the first 1,000 hits (the maximum number shown). Practical precision (the number of included references retrieved in the first 1,000, divided by 1,000) was on average 1.9%, which is only slightly lower than in other published SRs. Improving searches with the lowest recall resulted in an increase in recall from 48% to 66% in GS and, in PubMed, from 60% to 85%.
CONCLUSIONS: Although its coverage and precision are acceptable, GS, because of its incomplete recall, should not be used as a single source in SR searching. A specialized, curated medical database such as PubMed provides experienced searchers with tools and functionality that help improve recall, and numerous options in order to optimize precision. Searches for SRs should be performed by experienced searchers creating searches that maximize recall for as many databases as deemed necessary by the search expert.
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