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Tips on Literature Searching in PubMed

Release Date: January 9, 2018
Category: Scientific Writing
Author: Katherine A., Ph.D.

What is PubMed? PubMed (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/) is a free, publicly accessible database of over 27 million citations to medical, nursing, dentistry, veterinary medicine, health care systems, and preclinical literature. PubMed is maintained by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), which is part of the U. S. National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine. Each citation in PubMed includes the article title; author names and affiliations; journal title, volume, and issue; article page numbers; date of publication; digital object identifier (DOI); abstract; keywords; and other article metadata. Some PubMed citations are linked to the full texts of the articles if they are available through the publisher, PubMed Central, or other access points. PubMed is the arguably the most popular, most accessible, and easiest to use citation database for health-related literature.

Choosing and using search terms. The key to performing an effective PubMed search is to carefully choose your search terms and logically string those search terms together. If you haphazardly enter search terms into PubMed, your search results may not include the articles you intend to find. For example, suppose you were interested in locating articles on endoplasmic reticulum (ER) stress, so you enter ER stress into the PubMed search box. Unfortunately, your search results will fail to include articles that mention the phrase “endoplasmic reticulum stress” if those articles do not also include the abbreviation ER. Your search results will also include articles that are not relevant to your intended query, such as those about psychological stress or that use ER as an abbreviation of “emergency room”. Also, because of the way that PubMed translates your search terms, you may also see articles mentioning stress that are published in journals with “ER” titles, such as Economic Record and Educational Research.

To improve the accuracy of your search results, you can use quotation marks to search for exact phrases (e.g., “ER stress”) and connect equivalent search terms or synonyms using the OR Boolean operator (e.g., “ER stress” OR “endoplasmic reticulum stress”). PubMed also recognizes the Boolean operators AND and NOT. However, remember that all Boolean operators used in a PubMed search must be entered in uppercase letters.

A more precise way of searching PubMed is to run an advanced search by clicking <Advanced> just under the search box. In the PubMed Advanced Search Builder (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/advanced), you can define the specific article metadata fields in which you would like to search. For example, you could search for articles on induced pluripotent stem cells that were published in the journal Nature (“induced pluripotent stem cells” in the <Title/Abstract> field and Nature in the <Journal> field), articles on endometriosis that were published by authors affiliated with Harvard University (endometriosis in the <Title/Abstract> field and Harvard in the <Affiliation> field), or articles on neurogenesis that were published by Dr. Fred H. Gage (neurogenesis in the <Title/Abstract> field and Gage FH in the <Author> field).

Limiting your search results. You can further refine your search results using PubMed’s built-in filters. After you run a search, the left-hand side of the webpage shows several filters that you can apply to narrow down your search results. For instance, you can refine your search results to include only articles that describe randomized controlled trials or systematic reviews (<Article types> filter), that include human participants (<Species> filter), or that were published after 2010 (<Publication dates> filter). By clicking the <Show additional filters> link, you can select other useful filters such as the language in which articles are published or the age range of study participants.

Finding a single specific citation. Rather than searching for a body of literature on a certain topic, PubMed’s Single Citation Matcher tool (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/citmatch) can help you find a specific article that you may have in mind. You simply enter whatever information you have or recall about the article (such as journal name, date, author name, and/or words in the title), and PubMed will return one or a few articles that precisely match the information provided, helping you find a certain article without needing to comb through hundreds of search results.

Saving your search results. After you have finalized your PubMed search, there are several ways of saving your search results. You can export all or a selection of your search results as a .txt or .csv file, send your search results to your citation management software (e.g., EndNote, Mendeley, Reference Manager), or e-mail your search results by clicking <Send to> near the upper right-hand corner of the webpage. If you register for a free My NCBI account (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/account/), you can also use the <Send to> function to save your search results as a Collection in your My NCBI account. Another benefit of saving your search results as a Collection in your My NCBI account is that, by setting your Collection to <Public>, you will be given a URL to your PubMed search results that can be shared with your colleagues.

Getting alerts when new articles are published. Another useful way to use your My NCBI account is to set up email alerts about new articles that meet your search parameters when their citations are added to PubMed. After you run your search, click the <Create Alert> link just below the search box. This allows you to save your search query and choose options for how frequently and in what format you would like to receive e-mail alerts of new articles that are picked up by that search query.

Conclusion. PubMed is an indispensable, free database of citations to articles published in biomedical and health-related journals. Although PubMed is quite easy to use, it is also easy to become frustrated when your search terms do not succeed in retrieving the articles you want. The tips provided here can help you more quickly and efficiently find and keep track of certain collections of journal articles, enabling you to stay up-to-date with the most recent studies in your field or perform comprehensive searches when writing literature reviews. If you have trouble using PubMed, however, contact a librarian at your institution. Medical or health science librarians, in particular, are often PubMed experts who can assist you in performing a literature search.

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