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Open Access Highly Accessed Open Badges Research article

Is searching full text more effective than searching abstracts?

Jimmy Lin

Author Affiliations

National Center for Biotechnology Information, National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, Maryland, USA

The iSchool, University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland, USA

BMC Bioinformatics 2009, 10:46  doi:10.1186/1471-2105-10-46

Published: 3 February 2009



With the growing availability of full-text articles online, scientists and other consumers of the life sciences literature now have the ability to go beyond searching bibliographic records (title, abstract, metadata) to directly access full-text content. Motivated by this emerging trend, I posed the following question: is searching full text more effective than searching abstracts? This question is answered by comparing text retrieval algorithms on MEDLINE® abstracts, full-text articles, and spans (paragraphs) within full-text articles using data from the TREC 2007 genomics track evaluation. Two retrieval models are examined: bm25 and the ranking algorithm implemented in the open-source Lucene search engine.


Experiments show that treating an entire article as an indexing unit does not consistently yield higher effectiveness compared to abstract-only search. However, retrieval based on spans, or paragraphs-sized segments of full-text articles, consistently outperforms abstract-only search. Results suggest that highest overall effectiveness may be achieved by combining evidence from spans and full articles.


Users searching full text are more likely to find relevant articles than searching only abstracts. This finding affirms the value of full text collections for text retrieval and provides a starting point for future work in exploring algorithms that take advantage of rapidly-growing digital archives. Experimental results also highlight the need to develop distributed text retrieval algorithms, since full-text articles are significantly longer than abstracts and may require the computational resources of multiple machines in a cluster. The MapReduce programming model provides a convenient framework for organizing such computations.