iPhone app review: PLoS Medicine (+ a muse on apps in general)

PLoS Medicine Home Screen

The PLoS Medicine iPhone app has been out for a couple months now, but as I was pondering it the other day, I thought I would use it as an example in a larger thought on mobile apps in health libraries.

AS an app, PLoS Medicine works just fine. It has the functions that most apps have established as standard now: ability to browse articles by subject; simple searching (a little too simple in my opinion); a way to save articles to an inside the app (a “Favorites” menu for quick access); and a way to get the articles outside of the app (direct link sent to email only). Full-text is available both formatted to the iPhone screen, or as the original .pdf.

The strangest thing about the app is its insistence on displaying lists of articles as title only (see screenshots below). This goes not only against most display conventions that list citations as (at least) author name and title, but it also seems to undercut the researchers involved by not attaching their names to the citations on the iPhone (author names are readily available on the web interface). This omission also cripples impacts the search function of the app.

But my beef with these apps is a little larger than just title display. It just isn’t practical to dedicate pages of my phone’s home screen to every open access (or paid access, for that matter) journal that I love and want to read. PLoS One, PLoS Biology, NEJM, JAMA, whatever–if all these journals start producing apps like this one then we have a serious problem of selection (though it gives us bloggers a few more reviews to write…). With the blinding proliferation of individual journal apps, the fragmentation of the literature grows, and the utility of all of them decreases. We need a durable solution to finding aggregated research on mobile handsets (more on this below).

This problem is not limited to journals. E-books are often this way, with many books released as individual apps. Anyone with an iPhone or similar app-driven device knows this problem with newspaper apps, all breathlessly trying to compete for the Top News App spot. Magazines are starting to catch on as well, with the release of at least Time, Wired and the New Yorker for iPad.

So as a librarian I would recommend two things to my users: one, forget journal apps unless you love ’em and find a way to search an aggregator instead. Mobile PubMed works OK on the iPhone; PubMed on Tap is better because you can save citations to collections in the app itself, and also email them. (Be aware that PubMed on Tap is not owned or operated by NLM; the PubMed database is simply harvested by the app.) One potentially useful app would be a PLoS Medicine-like app across all the journals in the DOAJ. That way the positives of open-access apps (full content in-app most notably) would be extended beyond a single title, into a much larger chunk of the open-access arena.

Second, I would recommend a more open and durable solution like setting up RSS Alerts for those can’t-miss journals and dumping them into Google Reader, or again a paid RSS app with a little more functionality, like Reeder.

For anything else, visit the page on the iPhone and mobile medicine at HLWIKI Canada (a wiki for health librarians that I help to moderate).

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