More than you ever wanted to know about searching in PubMed

Searching for and discovering literature in the medical field can sometimes be a bit different from searching for works in other disciplines. With all of that medical jargon, how do you know where to begin and what terms to use?

Medical Library

Image by roseflreising. CC license here.

One of the best resources available for medical research within Fielding’s Library is the PubMed database. While PubMed is freely available on the web, connecting through the library will allow you to link out to more full-text options when available.

So, what exactly is PubMed?  Well, in their own words: “PubMed comprises nearly 25 million citations for biomedical literature…”.  As explained on their FAQs page, PubMed includes citations for works “covering portions of the life sciences, behavioral sciences, chemical sciences, and bioengineering.”  I’ve worked with users who have utilized PubMed to find literature related to chronic pain, massage therapy, animal assisted therapy, prostate cancer, and more.

Let’s chat about one important search strategy and some resources which will help you make the most of this database.

Search Strategy–Medical Subject Headings

One of the largest barriers to conducting research in the medical field can be determining the best search terms. As we all know, medical terminology can be a bit convoluted and not necessarily easy to predict. In fact, special terms known as ‘Medical Subject Headings’ (a.k.a. MeSH terms) exist to help classify and make medical works find-able.

Utilizing MeSH terms in a PubMed search is an excellent strategy to help you find highly relevant materials.  The problem?  Well…figuring out what MeSH terms actually exist on your topic.



Image by Walt Stonburner. CC license here.

Lucky for us, the National Library of Medicine has created a ‘MeSH browser‘ which makes this task a lot easier.  Let’s work through a simple example.

In this scenario, let’s say I am trying to find some studies regarding anti-anxiety treatments for adolescents.

Once I cruise on over to the MeSH browser, the first thing I will do is input one of the major terms I’m interested in, such as ‘anti-anxiety’:

Image of MeSH browser

Click image to enlarge

The next page will show me possible MeSH matches for my subject of interest (*Note: I used the ‘find exact term’ search option):

Sample results page from MeSH search

Click image to enlarge


Let’s pause for a moment….that page looks weird doesn’t it?  Since I asked the browser to find exact term matches, it has returned a list of terms which all satisfy this criteria.  I was interested in anti-anxiety treatment, so let’s click on “Anti-Anxiety Drugs” to see what happens:

Official heading entry

Click image to enlarge

Whoa Nelly!  What’s up with this page?  There’s a lot of information to sort through here, but I’ve circled the three most important pieces in yellow.

First, the MeSH Heading. Even though I clicked on ‘anti-anxiety drugs’, I was directed to a page where the official heading is ‘Anti-Anxiety Agents’.  Since I am interested in anti-anxiety treatment options, this is likely the best term for my research.

Second, the Scope Note.  If you’re not sure if the official heading is appropriate to your research, check out the scope note. This note is meant to describe what is encompassed in the use of this heading. It will often also say what is not included in case this affects your choice of terms.

Third, the See Also terms.  The list of ‘see also’ terms is showing some options for related MeSH Headings.  For instance, there is a MeSH term for ‘anxiety disorders’.  If my first search strategy does not work out, I may want to run some additional searches with these other headings to see how they affect my results.

I repeated this strategy for my population of interest, ‘adolescents’, and discovered that the MeSH heading for that term is simply: adolescent.

Now that I have some terms at the ready, I will hop back on over to the PubMed Advanced search screen and plug them in like so:

Sample PubMed Search

Click image to enlarge.

This search found me a whopping 1300 results.  From here, I can use the filters on the left side of the screen to narrow them down.  I can also use the ‘see similar articles’ link below any article to help me focus on a particular sub-set of documents.  Likewise, it’s always easy to revise the search and add in a keyword or additional MeSH heading.  As with any research, you may need to test out a few keywords, MeSH terms, and combinations to see which yield the best results.

Search results page.

Click image to enlarge

Now, do yourself a favor and take a long sip of coffee, you deserve it.

More Resources

There obviously can be A LOT to learn about databases like PubMed.  We’ll link you out to some useful resources to help you learn more about making the most of this tool:

Publishing in Medical Journals

When publishing articles in some medical journals, they will ask that your references use the ‘Index Medicus’ abbreviations for journals. Index What-i-cus? Here’s a handy tool to help:

Many citation managers such as Zotero or EndNote also offer the ability to create Index Medicus formatted references. Be sure to consult their help resources to find out how.

Happy Searching!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s