Focus of the Week: NLM Indexers

Some say they’re the ultimate slicers and dicers because they cut through so much copy so you can find what you need. Others believe indexers are the ultimate timesavers, because they cull through millions of bits of information so you don’t have to. Some people call them unsung heroes because their behind-the-scenes work makes possible so much of what NLM is here for, namely, helping users access the materials we hold in the life sciences.

We say they’re all that and more.

Indexers make it happen.

Indexers carefully analyze journal articles in PubMed/MEDLINE and assign terms to them that describe what they’re about. These terms then help you find what you need on a particular topic and identify important concepts within or related to that topic. Those new concepts, in turn, can be used to expand or refine your search.

Indexing is a solitary practice that impacts millions. A skill as well as an art, indexing is a task of both knowledge and judgment. It calls for logic, precision, and common sense. And in a place like NLM, it calls for academic training in fields such as biochemistry, genetics, microbiology, medicine, chemistry, library science, or informatics.

This week, we’re going to sing the praises of these unsung Library heroes—or rather we’re going to give them space so you can learn what drives this diverse group of individuals. (This is better, we promise. We don’t actually sing that well.) We reached out to indexers at NLM and a few of them were able to take time to answer our questions.

Meet Funmi Akhigbe, Preeti Kochar, Oleg Rodionov, Catherine Smith, Eduardo Tello, Carol Washer, and Deborah Whitman.

Quick Q&A with Akhigbe, Tello, and Kochar
Question Olufunmilayo Akhigbe, MLS Germán Eduardo Tello, MA Preeti Gokal Kochar, PhD
 headshot of Funmi Akhigbe  casual headshot of Eduardo Tello  casual headshot of Preeti Kochar
How did you first learn about indexing? My father, an avid reader, always gave me reading and writing projects. To get relevant information from the books, I learned to check the back-of-the-book index, so I learned about indexing through that and that index terms make locating relevant information from any book/document easier and quicker. My wife saw a small announcement in the New York Times about MeSH indexing for the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, and she encouraged me to call for an interview. The interview did not go too well, as I did not grasp what indexing was about. However, three months later I was called back for a second interview as they were interested in my romance languages skills.  In the 1980s, I was doing research on gene transcription. To look for literature, I used Index Medicus, the printed precursor of MEDLINE before the internet. Back then I had no idea I would be indexing someday!
In a nutshell, what’s your background? I studied zoology and have a masters in library studies from the University of Ibadan, Ibadan, Nigeria. I specialized in medical librarianship: starting as a cataloging librarian, then a collection development librarian, and eventually becoming the medical librarian/deputy university librarian for 10 years.

I was also president of the Africa Health Information and Librarians Association (AHILA) and managed bibliographic control projects toward the African Index Medicus before relocating to the USA.

I was born in Ibaguė, Colombia, the youngest of five, graduated from high school in Bogotá and also attended university for two years there. I am married with one daughter. I came to the USA in 1966 and attended Queens College and Hofstra University. As an undergraduate, I majored in life sciences in Bombay, India. In graduate school, I studied transcription in mouse tumor cells and obtained a doctorate in molecular biology/biochemistry from the University of South Carolina. After two years of post-doc work, I taught at various colleges and universities for almost a decade. Then in 2003 I joined a company as a life sciences editor and started indexing.
How did you get started as an indexer? I started indexing in 1981 by providing back-of-the-book index terms for publishing houses in Nigeria.Then during a six-month fellowship in 1991, I participated in NLM in-house indexing training because I wanted to learn more about MeSH subjecting headings for cataloging. (I was a cataloging librarian then.) I discovered that indexing journal articles was more in-depth. At the end of the fellowship, I wrote an article, “Cataloger as an Indexer,” published in The Indexer. I never knew I would be indexing and contributing toward MEDLINE! The Franklin Institute sent me to their index section for training that lasted three months. I worked as an indexer at Franklin for about three years. I moved to Carrollton, Texas, and worked part time for an indexing contractor. I was hired by the library in 1986. I was looking at teaching positions in the Washington Post classifieds under “Education” and an announcement under “Editor, Life Science” caught my attention. I applied. It turned out to be primarily an indexing position at a private company in Bethesda. That’s how I started indexing. Three years later, in 2006, I applied for a position at NLM and have been indexing for MEDLINE since.
For the uninitiated, why is MEDLINE indexing so important? The explosion of published information globally has made it practically impossible for researchers/scientists to stay current with new knowledge in their area of specialization. This is where the importance of indexing comes to play. MEDLINE contains bibliographic information for millions of journal articles indexed from more than 5,000 journals. The subject/ index terms enable grouping together of thousands of articles on a topic by the search engine with as much specificity as desired by the researcher. These subject terms are provided by subject specialists who have been trained in the use of the controlled vocabulary (Medical Subject Headings [MeSH]). It gives access to national and international scientific and medical journals to researchers, medical personnel, students, other professions, and very importantly to patients looking for information on their diseases. Searching for medical articles on the internet is essential for researchers, medical professionals, and increasingly patients. Biomedical terminology is vast and complex. Finding articles on a specific topic from the millions out there is not easy. MEDLINE indexing is the filtering process that helps with the searches. It involves consulting the full text and assigning appropriate Medical Subject Headings (or MeSH, a controlled vocabulary) and other information to citations. In other words, indexers have already identified the subject matter of individual articles. So, MEDLINE indexing helps a searcher retrieve the most relevant articles while minimizing retrieval of irrelevant articles. In today’s world of information overload, this service is priceless—and NLM provides it for free!
What excites you the most about your work? I am daily contributing to my passion since I became a librarian: accessibility and ease of retrieval of medical literature as needed. Many thanks to technology! I learn about the latest scientific and medical advances and discoveries. I also learn more about indexing when I revise the work of the several indexers assigned to me. I cherish the independence allowed to me by the nature of my work. Teleworking offers the family life-work balance that many wish for. Working with my colleagues—they are a highly educated and diverse group. I enjoy their company and have learned a lot from them.
Tell us something surprising about yourself. My first name means “God has given me joy,” and I am an ordained pastor. I was given six months to live when I was seven-years-old. I love word games. It’s mostly what I use my smartphone for.


Quick Q&A with Rodionov and Whitman
Question Oleg Rodionov, MD, PhD Deborah B. Whitman, MS
 casual headshot of Oleg Rodionov  headshot of Deborah Whitman
How did you first learn about indexing? I was an avid MEDLINE user for years. However, I first learned about indexing as a career choice during a job interview for a position of contract indexer with the National Library of Medicine. My husband was an abstractor/ indexer for a private company that indexed government documents and statistical publications. He suggested that science indexing might be a good fit for me.
In a nutshell, what’s your background? I graduated from Tomsk Medical Institute, one of the oldest medical schools in Russia founded in the late 19th century. Upon graduation, I decided to switch from practical medicine to basic science, as I had a feeling that the most exciting and challenging things were happening in the lab. It was the time when genetic engineering was in its heyday. This led me to a PhD in molecular biology. I have a BS in biology and an MS in biotechnology. I was a laboratory research assistant for several years before I tired of working in labs and changed careers to become an indexer. Between working in private industry and at NLM, I now have over 20 years of indexing experience.
How did you get started as an indexer? All of us are constantly looking for new opportunities to grow professionally and find new applications for our knowledge and skills. I applied for a job advertised as requiring the ability to process medical and biological literature, though I did not have a complete understanding of all the technical aspects. I was surprised at how quickly I gained understanding of the philosophy and workflow of MEDLINE indexing project. During graduate school, I realized that lab research was not what I wanted to do for a living. I had started looking for work as a science writer or editor when I found a job with a private scientific indexing company. I began as an entry-level indexer and worked my way up to become the managing editor for the life sciences division.
For the uninitiated, why is MEDLINE indexing so important? Understanding the basic purpose of indexing is easy. Finding a certain piece of information is trivial in a book with an index. One will need to read through the entire text of an equivalent un-indexed book, possibly to realize by the last page the information is not even there! The utility of indexing is largely the same in the context of MEDLINE. Indexers work to facilitate the retrieval of semantically-complex, heterogeneous information contained in MEDLINE by diverse categories of users. Data integration, valid retrieval, organization, and analytics are arguably more important for the current research in life sciences and its potential impact on humankind than quantitative generation of new data. Many people plug a word or phrase into a search engine and look at only the first 5 or 10 hits. For a layperson seeking background information, that generic approach might be sufficient, but a researcher needs to conduct a targeted search using very specific terminology to retrieve the most pertinent articles.

MEDLINE indexing is unique in that a human being, not indexing software, has indexed each and every record using standardized scientific terminology. Using MEDLINE indexing, researchers can construct complex and precise searches to find exactly the article(s) of interest without wading through a lot of “false” hits. Our indexing is one of the many reasons why MEDLINE is considered the gold standard of medical science databases.

What excites you the most about your work? I immediately fell in love with indexing because it provides a rare opportunity to satisfy my natural desire for categorizing data, classifying phenomena, and structuring knowledge. Sometimes I call myself a natural-born indexer. In my own small way, I am excited to contribute to medical science by helping scientists find articles applicable to their research or physicians find articles related to patient care. Who knows—maybe an article I indexed might one day save a patient’s life.
Tell us something surprising about yourself. I have an article published in Science, which was cited more than 200 times since it came out in 1999.

I also have a huge collection of recordings by French singers and a highly intelligent bilingual cat who responds to multiple commands both in Russian and in English.

Music and gardening are my two creative passions. I’ve been a musician all my life, playing clarinet in band and orchestra in high school and college, and now I sing with an a cappella chamber chorus. I’m an avid gardener, growing all my flowers and vegetables from seed, and I also have a small landscape design business.
Quick Q&A with Smith and Washer
Question Catherine Smith, BS, AAS Carol Y. Washer, BS
 casual headshot of Catherine Smith casual headshot of Carol Washer
How did you first learn about indexing? I learned about indexing from a friend who worked at the NIH Office of the Director as an indexer for the CRISP (Computer Retrieval of Information on Scientific Projects) database. I saw an ad in the Washington Post for a job as an indexing contractor. The opportunity would allow me to use my skills and work from home, which was important because I have a daughter with disabilities.
In a nutshell, what’s your background? I have a clinical background from working at veterinary hospitals for 15 years. I became a certified veterinary technician for the State of Maryland and passed the National Boards as well. In 2003, I was hired by NIH as a contract indexer for CRISP (a searchable database of federally funded biomedical research projects). This indexing was automated after three years so I moved to RCDC (Research, Condition, and Disease Categorization). In May 2009, I became a federal employee for the Index Section at NLM. I have a BS in biology, with minor in chemistry from Bates College in Maine.
How did you get started as an indexer? A friend, who worked as an indexer at the NIH OD, told me about a job opening and encouraged me to apply. As part of the interview, I was given an indexing test, which I did so well on they offered me a job. I took a two-week class lass at NLM, which I thought was interesting.
For the uninitiated, why is MEDLINE indexing so important? MEDLINE indexing uses terms from the Medical Subject Headings (MeSH) vocabulary to describe the content of biomedical articles. Our indexing is important because some articles can only be retrieved in a search as a result of the terms we assigned. We provide information on biomedical journals to professionals and the general public.
What excites you the most about your work? It is exciting to know I am helping others find the health information they need so they can make the best health decisions. Organizing information and being of service in a unique way.
Tell us something surprising about yourself. I volunteered for the Chesapeake Wildlife Sanctuary and the Baltimore Zoo, worked at the Bronx Zoo as a large mammal keeper, and taught an in-patient care class for the Veterinary Assistant Program at Howard and Carroll Community Colleges. I am also a certified scuba diver. I like solving mysteries and should have gone into forensic medicine.

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