A brief look at machine-learning powered literature search

Machine-learning (ML) and neural networks are transforming data science and life sciences. They are being applied to deal with the challenges of making sense of piles of ‘big data’ that are growing bigger all the time.

Now, these same tools are now being applied to searching the gigantic scientific literature databases (PubMed contains > 30M citations) in order to bring more relevant results to researchers.

A simple PubMed search proceeds by matching terms like the following:

…if you enter child rearing in the search box, PubMed will translate this search to: “child rearing”[MeSH Terms] OR (“child”[All Fields] AND “rearing”[All Fields]) OR “child rearing”[All Fields]

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK3827/

If you want to get potentially more sophisticated than simply searching on matching terms, like PubMed, take a look at the methods below. Without having used each one extensively, it’s difficult for me to tell if the results are an improvement on PubMed or Google, but let’s just jump in an explore each one briefly:

Semantic Scholar

First up is Semantic Scholar. According to the “about me” page, SS is aimed at helping researchers find relevant publications faster. It analyzes whole documents and extracts meaningful features using various types of ML. The authors claim that this method results in finding influential citations, key images and phrases, and allows the researcher to focus on impactful publications first. They claim to index 176M articles, and have filters for high-quality publications. Detail about this are scarce however.

A search results page from Semantic Scholar search for “single-cell RNA-seq”

The search results appear to have some nice features. Above is a screencap of the results for a “single-cell RNA-seq” search. In the image below, you can see that beneath each paper title and abstract are a couple of numbers in orange. The number on the left is the number of “highly influential citations.” This is the number of papers where this paper played an important role in the citing paper. The second number on the right is the “citation velocity” which represents the average number of citations per year for that work. Then there are several more useful buttons, including a link out, a button that brings up the citation in a variety of formats, a “save” button, and a button to add the paper to my Paperpile library.

Clicking through on one paper yields a page that looks like this:

A results page from Semantic Scholar. Key figures are pulled out and highlighted for quick viewing. Key topics covered in the work are shown on the right.

This nice, clean interface makes it easy to absorb the content of the paper, including browsing the abstract and key figures. You also have a metrics box in the upper right that shows how many times the paper is cited, how many are “highly influenced”, and where in the citing papers this paper is referenced. The headings across the middle of the results page break down the sections that are below. These include “Figures and Topics”, “Media Mentions” where SS finds blog posts and online reports that mention this topic, “Citations” which is a list of the citing papers, “References” which is the papers referenced by this paper, and “Similar Papers” which are papers that cover related topics.

Iris.ai

Iris.ai is machine-learning tool that uses neural networks to build knowledge graphs about publications. The “about me” section includes a cutesy intro in the first person, as if the algorithm were just a really smart person reading a lot of papers and not a research project. Anyway, Iris claims to have “read” at least 77M papers in the core database. There is a good article here detailing the evolution of Iris since her founding in 2016. And the Iris.AI blog is a good place to learn of updates to the method.

When you perform a search with Iris.ai the interface looks like this:

Above. The search interface for Iris.ai.

This looks like a standard search bar, but instead of searching keywords you either input a URL of a paper you are interested in, or you write a title and 300 word paragraph describing a research problem. So there is some work on the front end to get to useful results, but possibly worth it if you need to deep dive into the literature. Let’s take a look at those results below.

Above: Search results for the paper “CNVkit: Genome-Wide Copy Number Detection and Visualization from Targeted DNA Sequencing.”

OK, this is wild. I’ve never seen a search result like this “map” of the knowledge that results from searching a paper. In this case, I searched the “CNVkit” paper. Each “cell” in this map can be zoomed in on, revealing sub-categories that further break down the knowledge and context of the papers. Below that are the actual papers themselves.

Here I’ve zoomed in on “Target” cell and then “Re-sequencing” cell. Now I’m down to individual papers that make up this “cell.”

I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief tour through some advanced ML-powered literature searching tools. I am going to make an effort to incorporate these into my own work with literature searching and see what difference it makes (maybe a subject for a future post).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.