Automated MeSH Term Suggestion for Effective Query Formulation in Systematic Reviews Literature Search

Intelligent Systems with Applications (ISWA) Technology-Assisted Review Systems Special Issue

Medical systematic review query formulation is a highly complex task done by trained information specialists. Complexity comes from the reliance on lengthy Boolean queries, which express a detailed research question. To aid query formulation, information specialists use a set of exemplar documents, called ‘seed studies’, prior to query formulation. Seed studies help verify the effectiveness of a query prior to the full assessment of retrieved studies. Beyond this use of seeds, specific IR methods can exploit seed studies for guiding both automatic query formulation and new retrieval models. One major limitation of work to date is that these methods exploit `pseudo seed studies’ through retrospective use of included studies (i.e., relevance assessments). However, we show pseudo seed studies are not representative of real seed studies used by information specialists. Hence, we provide a test collection with real world seed studies used to assist with the formulation of queries. To support our collection, we provide an analysis, previously not possible, on how seed studies impact retrieval and perform several experiments using seed-study based methods to compare the effectiveness of using seed studies versus pseudo seed studies. We make our test collection and the results of all of our experiments and analysis available at High-quality medical systematic reviews require comprehensive literature searches to ensure the recommendations and outcomes are sufficiently reliable. Indeed, searching for relevant medical literature is a key phase in constructing systematic reviews and often involves domain (medical researchers) and search (information specialists) experts in developing the search queries. Queries in this context are highly complex, based on Boolean logic, include free-text terms and index terms from standardised terminologies (e.g., the Medical Subject Headings (MeSH) thesaurus), and are difficult and time-consuming to build. The use of MeSH terms, in particular, has been shown to improve the quality of the search results. However, identifying the correct MeSH terms to include in a query is difficult: information experts are often unfamiliar with the MeSH database and unsure about the appropriateness of MeSH terms for a query. Naturally, the full value of the MeSH terminology is often not fully exploited. This article investigates methods to suggest MeSH terms based on an initial Boolean query that includes only free-text terms. In this context, we devise lexical and pre-trained language models based methods. These methods promise to automatically identify highly effective MeSH terms for inclusion in a systematic review query. Our study contributes an empirical evaluation of several MeSH term suggestion methods. We further contribute an extensive analysis of MeSH term suggestions for each method and how these suggestions impact the effectiveness of Boolean queries.