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Computer scientists launch new search tool for COVID-19 researchers


After the White House called on researchers nationally to assist in COVID-19, Hridesh Rajan realized that the large body of published papers on coronaviruses and other epidemiology studies could offer “game-changing insights” for medical researchers — but first, those researchers spend hours trying to find the right papers. Existing databases for published papers indexed keywords found throughout the papers, so one piece of published research with the term “coronavirus” written in passing during the introduction would be surfaced no matter how relevant the actual research is. 

“We need to get to the solutions faster,” Rajan said. “We thought, why can’t we solve the problem here and play our part in helping solve the COVID-19 crisis?”

Rajan and his team designed a database that takes the structure of a published paper into account, prioritizing terms found in papers’ findings section. The BoaC database also shows a user the context in which keywords appear by surfacing a brief paragraph from each paper, so researchers can quickly decide whether the paper is relevant to their needs or not. 

Starting March 26, it took the team about 10 days to complete the first version of the database. “But those were very long days, because we were operating in this environment where things have to be in place as soon as possible,” Rajan said. 

The BoaC project is an open research dataset available for free at http://boa.cs.iastate.edu/boac/; registration is required to use. Rajan and his team are developing additional search capabilities, such as an index of terms, and are hyperlinking articles together to make searching by topic easier for researchers. The team will also continue adding to the database as more research on coronaviruses and COVID-19 is published. 

While the team continues work on the BoaC dataset, COVID-19 underscores the importance of the computer science discipline, Rajan said. Many universities have completely changed the delivery of classes, and departments can play a large role in keeping instruction active for students. 

“Computing has a lot of roles to play in this,” Rajan said. “What was essentially an experiment in computer science to offer online courses has … made it possible to continue operations to some extent in universities. 

“This is a crisis of unprecedented scale, and each individual, whatever their skill sets might be, has a role to play,” he added.

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