Lost in translation? A multilingual Query Builder improves the quality of PubMed queries: a randomised controlled trial

BMC Med Inform Decis Mak. 2017 Jul 3;17(1):94. doi: 10.1186/s12911-017-0490-9.


Background: MEDLINE is the most widely used medical bibliographic database in the world. Most of its citations are in English and this can be an obstacle for some researchers to access the information the database contains. We created a multilingual query builder to facilitate access to the PubMed subset using a language other than English. The aim of our study was to assess the impact of this multilingual query builder on the quality of PubMed queries for non-native English speaking physicians and medical researchers.

Methods: A randomised controlled study was conducted among French speaking general practice residents. We designed a multi-lingual query builder to facilitate information retrieval, based on available MeSH translations and providing users with both an interface and a controlled vocabulary in their own language. Participating residents were randomly allocated either the French or the English version of the query builder. They were asked to translate 12 short medical questions into MeSH queries. The main outcome was the quality of the query. Two librarians blind to the arm independently evaluated each query, using a modified published classification that differentiated eight types of errors.

Results: Twenty residents used the French version of the query builder and 22 used the English version. 492 queries were analysed. There were significantly more perfect queries in the French group vs. the English group (respectively 37.9% vs. 17.9%; p < 0.01). It took significantly more time for the members of the English group than the members of the French group to build each query, respectively 194 sec vs. 128 sec; p < 0.01.

Conclusions: This multi-lingual query builder is an effective tool to improve the quality of PubMed queries in particular for researchers whose first language is not English.

Keywords: Medical information retrieval; PubMed/MEDLINE; Search engine.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Information Storage and Retrieval / standards*
  • Language
  • Librarians
  • Multilingualism*
  • PubMed / standards*
  • Translating