Tips for Better PubMed Searches

Logo for PubMed, a service of the National Lib...

Logo for PubMed, a service of the National Library of Medicine. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

PubMed is one of those tools that everyone uses but not everyone uses it well.  Usually your enthusiasm for investigating the search results will wane after the third or fourth page of results. Here are a few tips for making your searches more targeted and successful.

Use MeSH Terms
PubMed uses Medical Search Heading (MeSH) terms to make the process of searching for papers easier.  The challenge is knowing which terms to use.  Luckily the Advanced Search page can help you get familiar with some of the search terms.  This tutorial from PubMed can help you get started.

Let’s take a look at a few of the most frequently used terms.  Suppose you wanted to do a search for a paper whose title contained the exact text “Early onset pancreatic cancer”. To do this search simply enter “Early onset pancreatic cancer”[Title] — exactly as you see it in bold face, including the quotation marks. The [Title] MeSH term tells PubMed to look only in the Title field.

Suppose that you’ve become familiar with some of the authors in a particular field, and you want to see if there are other papers by the same author.  Use the [Author] MeSH term like this: pancreatic cancer AND Hruban RH[Author]. In this example, I’m looking for all papers written by Ralph Hruban on pancreatic cancer.

Suppose that you notice that a lot of the authors in your field are associated with a particular institution, and you’d like to narrow your focus to just those articles from Johns Hopkins or the Sol Goldman Institute.  You can add the [Affiliation] MeSH term to your existing search, like this: AND (Johns Hopkins[Affiliation] OR Sol Goldman[Affiliation]).

Keep an eye on the Search details field on the right-hand side of the PubMed search results page as you build and run your query.  As you perform your search it shows you exactly how your search terms are decomposed.  In my case, pancreatic cancer becomes pancreatic neoplasms and any filters I add to my search are automatically turned into MeSH terms.

If you want to narrow your search to articles published over the last 5 years, use this clause: AND (“2008/12/24″[PDat] : “2013/12/22″[PDat])

The [PDat] field stands for the Publishing Date.

If you want to only see results that contain full free text, use the “loattrfree full text”[sb] clause.

Use The Filter’s Luke
PubMed provides a number of built-in filters that let you further narrow the search results.  These filters appear on the left side of the results page.  You can tell PubMed that you’re only interested in papers published over the last 5 years, or papers that only have “Full free text”.  Perhaps you’re only interested in articles concerning clinical trials — there’s a filter for that.

Once you have the search working the way you want it to, you can save the search to your MyNCBI account.

You’ll find more helpful tips here.  Happy Searching!


About Mark Fortner

I write software for scientists doing drug discovery and cancer research. I'm interested in Design Thinking, Agile Software Development, Web Components, Java, Javascript, Groovy, Grails, MongoDB, Firebase, microservices, the Semantic Web Drug Discovery and Cancer Biology.
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