Executive Summary

The growth of the Internet, its widespread use, and its availability as a platform for database searching has made it possible and practical for the National Library of Medicine (NLM) to provide Internet access for many of its 40-plus online databases. In 1997, the NLM decided to provide Internet access to its extensive portfolio of toxicology and environmental health databases available on the Toxicology Data Network (TOXNET). During the development phase of the TOXNET Web site, the NLM requested that the Institute of Medicine (IOM) conduct a study that would assess the usefulness and effectiveness of this new Web site (http://www.toxnet.nlm.nih.gov).

The IOM Committee on Internet Access to the NLM's Toxicology and Environmental Health Databases was formed in early 1998 and was charged with seeking input from health professionals on their assessment of the Web site and with providing recommendations on the refinements necessary to facilitate TOXNET database searches. The committee met twice in the course of the study and solicited input from a number of health professionals and other interested individuals on their experiences with searching the new interface. To more fully capture the search process and identify the barriers that individuals experienced, videotaping was used to record a small number of individual search sessions. In this way, the search process could be more carefully examined.

The committee's assessment of the current search interface found that improvements were needed to assist the user in all steps of the search process. Of particular importance are:

  • improved assistance in selecting which of the TOXNET databases to search;



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Internet Access to the National Library of Medicine's Toxicology and Environmental Health Databases Executive Summary The growth of the Internet, its widespread use, and its availability as a platform for database searching has made it possible and practical for the National Library of Medicine (NLM) to provide Internet access for many of its 40-plus online databases. In 1997, the NLM decided to provide Internet access to its extensive portfolio of toxicology and environmental health databases available on the Toxicology Data Network (TOXNET). During the development phase of the TOXNET Web site, the NLM requested that the Institute of Medicine (IOM) conduct a study that would assess the usefulness and effectiveness of this new Web site (http://www.toxnet.nlm.nih.gov). The IOM Committee on Internet Access to the NLM's Toxicology and Environmental Health Databases was formed in early 1998 and was charged with seeking input from health professionals on their assessment of the Web site and with providing recommendations on the refinements necessary to facilitate TOXNET database searches. The committee met twice in the course of the study and solicited input from a number of health professionals and other interested individuals on their experiences with searching the new interface. To more fully capture the search process and identify the barriers that individuals experienced, videotaping was used to record a small number of individual search sessions. In this way, the search process could be more carefully examined. The committee's assessment of the current search interface found that improvements were needed to assist the user in all steps of the search process. Of particular importance are: improved assistance in selecting which of the TOXNET databases to search;

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Internet Access to the National Library of Medicine's Toxicology and Environmental Health Databases clarification of the options for viewing the search results, including the use of the customized display option that narrows the display to specific content areas (e.g., animal toxicity studies, emergency medical treatment, human health effects); and improved mechanisms for providing "help" information (e.g., increased use of links to the help screens, development of a tutorial, and eventual use of context-sensitive help). The committee found that the current search interface is too complex for the novice but does not offer the specificity and complexity needed by expert searchers. This disparity indicates the need for more than one search interface, and the committee recommends the development of three levels: Quick Search—This option would consist of a single input box for entering all search terms. Examples include the initial screens for Alta Vista and PubMed. Search results would be less refined but would allow for searching TOXNET information in a manner familiar to Web users. Step-by-Step Search—This interface would have detailed instructions to walk the searcher through each step of the search process and would be geared to the novice or infrequent searcher who wants to have substantive retrieval but is not familiar with the databases. Advanced Search—This interface would offer the complexity needed to equal the specificity and the power of the command line interface and could include a number of features such as simple and nested Boolean searching, truncation, field searching, phrase searching, and proximity searching. Additionally, several other long-term enhancements should be considered to improve the quality and efficiency of the search process. These improvements include: development of cross-database searching capabilities, an online thesaurus and chemical dictionary, detailed search analysis screens, and extensive hypertext links within and among TOXNET records and between TOXNET records and MEDLINE and TOXLINE records. To fully utilize the information contained in the TOXNET databases, it is critically important to integrate TOXNET with other NLM databases, particularly MEDLINE and TOXLINE. Because MEDLINE is a standard source of biomedical information for health professionals, any links (or other methods of) connecting a bibliographic citation to the relevant information in the TOXNET databases would greatly enhance the use of the TOXNET information and would provide an added service to MEDLINE searchers. It is hoped that the

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Internet Access to the National Library of Medicine's Toxicology and Environmental Health Databases NLM will utilize both existing technologies and those in development to integrate the TOXNET databases into the broader context of other NLM databases. This can be accomplished in the short-term by adding links from PubMed and Internet Grateful Med to the TOXNET Web site. A more long-term goal would be to integrate links to TOXNET information directly into the bibliographic records of MEDLINE and TOXLINE. This system of links could be similar to those now available in PubMed between MEDLINE and the National Center for Biotechnology Information's ENTREZ databases. Although a goal of the TOXNET Web site should be to minimize the training required to effectively search the databases, a certain amount of training will still be necessary, at least initially. Of particular importance are train-the-trainer sessions because participants can then further expand the capability by training others. The Toxicology Information Outreach Project, NLM's Regional Medical Libraries and the National Network of Libraries of Medicine, and Partners in Information Access for Public Health Professionals can all be utilized to enhance training efforts. In addition, the committee recommends that a Web-based tutorial be developed. To maximize outreach efforts and raise awareness of the TOXNET Web site, it is important to take advantage of the many existing organizations, agencies, Web sites, and publications that reach the varied audiences for toxicology and environmental health information. Because environmental health concerns are frequently focused on local and regional issues, it is particularly important to reach regional, state, and local environmental health organizations. Outreach can take multiple forms including articles for newsletters, news columns, and journals; hypertext links from organization Web sites to TOXNET; brochures, news releases, and handouts; and presentations, seminars, and exhibits at conferences or meetings. Reaching the numerous individuals and groups involved in environmental health issues poses a challenge when resources are limited. However, the Internet can go a long way in serving as a cost-effective mechanism for marketing the TOXNET Web site. Key hypertext links within the overall NLM Web site are crucial, including links to TOXNET from the homepages of NLM, Internet Grateful Med, and PubMed. Additionally, it is important to have links from other environmental health Web sites to TOXNET. Although adding a link to TOXNET is done at the discretion of the host site, the minimal time and cost involved in adding a link makes it quite feasible. The challenge is to contact the relevant organizations and acquaint them with the wealth of information available on the TOXNET Web site. The committee believes that the TOXNET databases offer information of interest to a broad range of individuals and organizations, and it applauds the Specialized Information Services Division and NLM for expanding access to TOXNET through the development of an Internet Web site. The committee's recommendations for improving the Web site and raising awareness of this information resource are summarized in Table ES-1. The release of the TOXNET Web site offers an opportune occasion for raising awareness about

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Internet Access to the National Library of Medicine's Toxicology and Environmental Health Databases the TOXNET databases. The committee hopes that NLM will take advantage of this opportunity to broaden its outreach and training efforts. At the same time, it is hoped that the search interface will continue to evolve and that NLM will continue to integrate the TOXNET information into its overall Web site and its plans for the future. TABLE ES-1 Summary of Opportunities for the TOXNET Web Site Short-Term Opportunities * Improved assistance in selecting which of the TOXNET databases to search * Clarification of display, print, and e-mail options * Improved mechanisms for providing help information * Integration of TOXNET into the overall NLM Web site through links from PubMed and Internet Grateful Med Long-Term Opportunities * Three levels of search interfaces—Quick Search, Step-by-Step Search, and Advanced Search * Further development of online help and tutorials * Cross-database searching * Addition of a thesaurus and chemical dictionary * Detailed search analysis * Extensive hypertext links within and among TOXNET records and between TOXNET records and MEDLINE and TOXLINE records Training and Outreach Opportunities * Utilize existing programs (e.g., Toxicology Information Outreach Project) * Maximize outreach activities to raise awareness of the TOXNET Web site * Utilize the Internet for outreach activities to reach national, regional, state, and local organizations and agencies