Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Using the MeSH Browser as a dictionary

Sandra of Discovering Biology in a Digital World provides a great discussion of the MeSH Browser, "MeSH part I. Where can you find the meaning of "life"?"

Noting that you can't often get a "quick" definition for a scientific term straight from a scientist, she also points out that the authority and precision of definitions provided by Google or Wikipedia may not be reliable enough for understanding the basics of a particular scientific word or phrase.

Sandra then gives a nice overview of how to find definitions using the scope notes available via NCBI's MeSH database.

It's so easy to focus on MeSH as a means to an end, a way to find the "right" terms to find good articles in PubMed on a topic, but Sandra's post reminded me that the MeSH database can serve as a reference resource all on its own.

In addition to using the scope notes to understand a term's meaning, a few other "uses" that come to mind:
- using the tree structures to begin to understand which body systems are affected by a given disease and how different conditions are related to each other
- looking at the entry terms to figure out common synonyms for a subject heading
- using the spell check/suggestion feature to "decode" a medical word (drug, disease, etc) that I've heard but never seen in print, or that's I just find difficult to spell correctly

For those interested in more on the history and functions of MeSH, including another version of the MeSH browser, check out the NLM's MeSH page.

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