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Advanced Search Techniques

Importance of the Initial Question

Focused questions on specific topics result in the best PubMed searches. Questions that cover a broad subject area will need to be focused in other ways. Limiting to review articles, or to Clinical Queries, or to articles from specific journals are some of the ways to focus a broad topic.

If the question is truly a request for an overview of a subject, perhaps PubMed is not the best database to use. Databases that provide background information include online textbooks, Dynamed, Clinical Pharmacology, UpToDate, and other databases available from the Dana Medical Library.


Very often PubMed brings up far more hits than you have time or energy to wade through. By applying a few limits, you can reduce this number to a smaller and more focused set of results.

Knowing PubMed contains citations to articles in non-English languages as well as to non-human studies, applying limits for English language and Humans is the best approach for any search on a clinical topic.

Other available limits include research methodology, journal and topic subsets, gender, and age groups. It is possible to limit by publication year, although this is generally not necessary since the most recently added records will be displayed first.

The limits you selected will remain in force until you remove or change them, or close out PubMed.

How PubMed Works and Why You Care

PubMed records include author, title and journal information, but they also include MeSH terms (Medical Subject Headings) selected from a list maintained by the U.S. National Library of Medicine. MeSH terminology provides a consistent way to retrieve information when different words or phrases are used for the same concept. PubMed translates the words a user types in into MeSH Terms. As a backup measure, PubMed also includes the words the user typed in and calls them text words.

An additional feature of MeSH terms is consolidation of more specific topics under broader topics. For example, a search for Neoplasms will find articles on sarcoma and lymphoma.

Click on See more in the Search Details box to see how PubMed translates a search for articles on the use of NSAIDS (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) and the prevention of strokes.

Check Search Details each time you perform a search in PubMed, as it will identify misspellings, dual meanings, and unintended uses of terms. For example, if you wish to investigate the inheritance patterns of a given disease, you will quickly learn that the word "inheritance" maps to the MeSH term "wills", a meaning far from what you'd intended! Using the term "genetics" will yield much more relevant results. Using the MeSH terms that appear in the records for relevant articles may be helpful in better targeting a subject search.

Related Articles

Each record brought up in PubMed will have a Related Articles link on the right margin. Clicking on this link will launch a search for articles on the same or similar topics. Results will be displayed in relevancy-ranked order rather than in reverse chronological order, with the original article listed first. This is an excellent tool to find similar articles to the one good article you started out with and does not require knowledge of MeSH Terms or use of the more sophisticated PubMed tools.

Combine Searches

PubMed is set up to allow you to type in your search all at once. But sometimes it's helpful to combine only two terms, then add a third and evaluate the result. You can do several versions of the same search and compare the results.

Advanced search provides a way to combine searches, backtrack to a previous search, and remind yourself of what you've already searched.

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