CryptoParty hosted by Newcastle City Library

On Sunday (22 May) I attended an event hosted by the council-run Newcastle City Library, the main library which sits in the centre of Newcastle, and ORG North East, a local Open Rights Group. The event was a two-hour CryptoParty. The aim was to help people set up their devices (phones, tablets, laptops) with applications to improve their online privacy. On hand were several volunteers with knowledge on different applications. The set-up of the event was informal with attendees able to drop-in at tables to ask questions and set up their devices.

The main applications were

  • Signal (from Open Whisper Systems) – a private messeging app similar to WhatsApp except metadata isn’t skimmed off by Facebook
  • Tor browser – a web browser that doesn’t look much different to any other web browser but keeps your information private by use of Tor relays (more about this below)
  • PGP – a way of encrypting your email messages
  • Protection of your Windows/Mac computer with full disc encryption

I had already installed Signal on my phone some months ago but I did clarify that just because I’m using it doesn’t mean my messages are secure because only a handful of my contacts are also using it.  It does offer me the option to invite others to join, but I think like most of these things, most people aren’t too interested so I haven’t bothered.

Tor browser was something I’d been meaning to install for some time but I had conflated it with the whole ‘Tor’ conversation that I’ve been hearing about which is much more to do with the Tor relays. Tor relays, in simple terms (correct me if I’m wrong), are servers set up and run by voluneers that allow internet traffic to hop between several of these before sending/receiving whatever it is you are accessing online. The Tor browser is exactly that, a browser based on Firefox and as easy to download and install as any browser. It is suggested that you actually review the tutorial before you start using it as there are some real DON’T’s users should heed (i.e. using BitTorrent while connected to Tor). You can also download the browser for your Android phone or iPhone. Be sure you download the apps from The Tor Project, not any of the copycat apps. For Android you have to download two different apps – not sure about iPhone as I don’t have one of these.

I can’t say that I am any closer to understanding and getting my head around PGP. From what I understand if you use gmail for example, you need to use a third party mail application like Thunderbird with an add on like Enigmail. There was a lot of mention of public and private keys, but it wasn’t really clear how you went about establishing these. We were shown some demonstrations of messages being encrypted but it all seemed rather complex, and, as I said, I’m no closer to implementing this. Lots of gaps in my knowledge still…

Regarding encrypted email I did ask about a webmail client that I learnt about via Twitter some weeks ago – ProtonMail – but none of the folks on hand had heard of this. I registered for an email account a few weeks ago but haven’t made the move. Again it seems that if the person at the other end isn’t using it then it’s all a bit moot. I’d be happy to  be convinced otherwise. The thing is with ProtonMail that it is very similar to gmail so it would be something, like Signal, that shouldn’t be difficult to get other people to adopt. From what I understand from people far more knowledgeable about these things is that it’s still not great because the encryption is being done by the provider so they can still read your messages. Can anyone clarify this is a way that makes sense to someone like me?

Unfortnately I wasn’t able to speak to the expert about full disc encryption before the end of the event (and I had to go) so I’m hoping there is another event in the near future where I can maybe get some more clarity about PGP and start to get to grips with full disc encryption.

All in all it was a good event with about a dozen people attending (and half a dozen experts on hand). It seemed to be really well received by those that attended but a few of us did discuss the fact that a majority of people don’t feel they need to protect their privacy and that those of us implementing these technologies have something to hide and/or are highly paranoid. This isn’t an area that I’m well versed in in terms of public opinion so I’m not sure how we go about convincing the general public that they should be more interested in their online privacy though Ian Clark has written about this recently both in a peer-reviewed paper and on his blog.

Ian also posted about the novelty of this particular event as it appears to be the first of its kind in the UK that was not only hosted by a public library, but also promoted by the council. You can read his post to get some further detail.

It’s also worth pointing out for the librarians amongst you, and library/librarian sympathesisers, that there is a group of librarians that discuss these types of issue via a monthly Twitter journal club, through their mailing list, and at an annual meet-up. That group is the Radical Librarians Collective (RLC) and I urge you to check them out. This is a UK-based group and there are other groups in other countries. This short-ish piece written by members of the RLC and published by CILIP is probably a good place to start.

The Library Freedom Project is an excellent resource for those, especially librarians, interested in online privacy. It has information about what you can do individually and on a library scale.

If there are future events like this I’d be keen to learn more about Tor and Tails, full disc encryption, the best ways of making things like tablets private, and PGP in terms of actually a walk-thru of setting things up.


ProQuest and systematic reviews – part 1

The plan is to write a series of posts about using ProQuest for systematic searching for systematic- and other reviews, this first post will be a brief-ish background to some of the problems.

ProQuest presents a number of challenges for undertaking systematic searching. Recently a number of pleas for help have been posted in mailing lists and on social media regarding time outs, discrepancies in search results, and general frustrations with using the ProQuest platform. I have also provided a lot of support in my institute over recent months to postgraduates working on systematic reviews as part of their thesis.

Proquest-page 3 display

An all too familiar screen in ProQuest. I have a folder with a couple dozen of these screenshots. I finally gave up taking them.

A bit of background

In the past, many information specialists and health researchers rarely encountered ProQuest because the offerings tended to focus on non-health/medical databases. This is still mostly true, but those who work in the NHS in England are now having to use ProQuest instead of OVID if they want to bypass the all-in-one search of HDAS as provided by NHS Evidence. (And avoidance of ProQuest probably shouldn’t be true of anyone doing public health research.)

Additionally, many questions are now cross-disciplinary and sticking with the usual suspects in the health- and medical-fields (e.g. MEDLINE, Embase, CINAHL, PsycInfo to name a few) is limiting. Much of the work that I have done almost always involves going beyond traditional health- and medical databases and using those that focus on education, social services, and even marketing. This has meant I’ve had to get very comfortable with a lot of different interfaces and the idiosyncracies of those interfaces.

I want to keep these posts short so I plan on doing three posts to start

  1. general notes about ProQuest (this post)
  2. the discrepancies many find in their search results
  3. running complex searches (this pretty much covers any search designed for systematic review)

If other topics come to mind, or I’m reminded of them from conversations, I’ll add to the series.

So onwards with some general notes about ProQuest.

500 error

Another familiar screen in ProQuest.

My experience

When I started to heavily use ProQuest in 2011*, and encountering serious problems using any of their databases, I got in touch with their help desk on more occasions than I can recall. (They probably all deeply inhale when they see my name pop up.) Problems encountered included:

  • time outs mid-search
  • time outs mid-selection of results
  • time outs mid-export
  • discrepancies with results day-to-day (in a way that didn’t make sense when you account for updates)
  • discrepancies in number of results during selection of results
  • discrepancies in number of results during export
  • a pop-up telling me I can’t do something I wasn’t trying to do
  • errors when trying to change the page display (e.g. from detailed to brief, or 10 results per page to 50)
  • errors when trying to go to the next page of results
  • selected results not showing up in the folder even when the folder shows there should be results in it (literally no results would be in the folder but it would display there were X results in the folder)
  • resetting which database you are searching when you move between screens

There were probably other issues, but these are what I recall off the top of my head. These problems often resulted in an additional 3-7 full days of work depending on how many of the databases I needed to search. This was of course infuriating because I could do 6-10 other databases in a single day (by doing translations in advance), but one Proquest database took at least one full day if the number of results didn’t exceed 1000.

Information from ProQuest

When I spoke to their help desk they were surprised to learn that anyone would use the databases for such complex searches, and that one would actually want to export hundreds, if not thousands, of results versus using simple searches and cherry-picking of results. They conceded that many of the problems I was encountering was because their systems were not set up for being hit like this which is why I was having so many issues with time outs. In the end it meant I had to do a lot of work arounds which only slightly improved the reliability and speed with which I could perform the searches. I’ll touch on these in a future post as I rarely have to use these nowadays since they have obviously improved both their hardware and algorithms to cope with complex searches and exporting.

They apparently looked further into these problems and discovered that something like 1-2% of the searches run in ProQuest are complex. This was in 2012/13 so this may have changed ever so slightly given the move to ProQuest by the NHS.

Working with ProQuest to improve things

I have actually spent a lot of time communicating with ProQuest about these problems over the years and on a few occasions have provided expert feedback and testing of new features/functionalities. While my interactions with various people at ProQuest have generally been pleasant and professional, I don’t think they entirely get it when I tell them that something intuitively doesn’t make sense or is so different from other platforms that it is confusing.I think they come at things from a developer perspective which really isn’t uncommon, but it is unfortunate for the end users.


I understand they are trying to make their product unique, but I think this is often to the detriment of usability both in terms of how people actually seek- and understand information, and in the functions they provide (e.g. hiding the search history under a weird icon – this is now remedied with search history being both under the weird icon, and in a text-based link under the search box (see image at left)). I think many of the new ‘improvements’ are anything but when it comes to using ProQuest for systematic searching, but I try to remember that, I’m guessing, at least 90% of the users are not using ProQuest for complex searches.

I realise this post doesn’t really offer you any practical advice about using ProQuest, but I wanted to provide some background information from where things were several years ago to where things are now, and that ProQuest is willing to engage on some level with improving their platform for the expert/systematic searcher. The next post will address some of the common problems, but I’d be interested to know if you’ve experienced the problems I mentioned above, and what kinds of questions you have about using ProQuest.

* If you’re curious, the databases I use most often in ProQuest are Applied Social Sciences Index and Abstracts (ASSIA), ERIC, International Bibliography of the Social Sciences (IBSS), Social Services Abstracts, and Sociological Abstracts. There are others I search too, but these feature in many of my search strategies.