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Controlled Vocabularies and Information Retrieval: 1918 Pandemic’s Scientific Literature as an Example

Authors: M. Garcia-Alsina, J. Cobarsí


The role of controlled vocabularies in information retrieval is broadly recognized as a relevant feature. Besides, there is a standing demand that editors and databases should consider the effective introduction of controlled vocabularies in their procedures to index scientific literature. That is especially important because information retrieval is pointed out as a significant point to drive systematic literature review. Hence, a first question emerges: Are the controlled vocabularies at this moment considered? On the other hand, subject searching in the catalogs is complex mainly due to the dichotomy between keywords from authors versus keywords based on controlled vocabularies. Finally, there is some demand to unify the terminology related to health to make easier the medical history exploitation and research. Considering these features, this paper focuses on controlled vocabularies related to the health field and their role for storing, classifying, and retrieving relevant literature. The objective is knowing which role plays the controlled vocabularies related to the health field to index and retrieve research literature in data bases such as Web of Science (WoS) and Scopus. So, this exploratory research is grounded over two research questions: 1) Which are the terms considered in specific controlled vocabularies of the health field; and 2) How papers are indexed in relevant databases to be easily retrieved, considering keywords vs specific health’ controlled vocabularies? This research takes as fieldwork the controlled vocabularies related to health and the scientific interest for 1918 flu pandemic, also known equivocally as ‘Spanish flu’. This interest has been fostered by the emergence in the early 21st of epidemics of pneumonic diseases caused by virus. Searches about and with controlled vocabularies on WoS and Scopus databases are conducted. First results of this work in progress are surprising. There are different controlled vocabularies for the health field, into which the terms collected and preferred related to ‘1918 pandemic’ are identified. To summarize, ‘Spanish influenza epidemic’ or ‘Spanish flu’ are collected as not preferred terms. The preferred terms are: ‘influenza’ or ‘influenza pandemic, 1918-1919’. Although the controlled vocabularies are clear in their election, most of the literature about ‘1918 pandemic’ is retrievable either by ‘Spanish’ or by ‘1918’ disjunct, and the dominant word to retrieve literature is ‘Spanish’ rather than ‘1918’. This is surprising considering the existence of suitable controlled vocabularies related to health topics, and the modern guidelines of World Health Organization concerning naming of diseases that point out to other preferred terms. A first conclusion is the failure of using controlled vocabularies for a field such as health, and in consequence for WoS and Scopus. This research opens further research questions about which is the role that controlled vocabularies play in the instructions to authors that journals deliver to documents’ authors.

Keywords: Controlled vocabularies, indexing, 1918 influenza, information retrieval, keywords, 1918 pandemic, scientific databases.

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