The retrieval precision and recall of a specialist bibliographic toxicity database (TRACE) and a range of widely available bibliographic databases used to identify toxicity papers were compared. The analysis indicated that the larger size and resources of the major bibliographic databases did not, for a series of test queries, assure superior retrieval of relevant papers. The specialist database, in which document selection and indexing is undertaken by the same expert toxicologists who use the database in their day-to-day work, achieved markedly better retrieval, using simpler search strategies, than the other databases. Specialist databases may offer a valuable alternative to the existing major bibliographic databases. The concept of relevance, as used to determine the effectiveness of bibliographic databases, is discussed. Copyright (C) 2000 Elsevier Science Ireland Ltd.