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Conducting Smarter PubMed Searches

At Aptitude Health, the daily project portfolio for the Medical Publications team is extremely diverse but boils down to one thing: Effectively communicating the clinical relevance of our clients’ products. Such communication requires well-researched content that is of high quality, accurate, and up to date with the newest medical developments.

With all the available articles, and millions of additional references published each year, quickly locating relevant information can become a time-consuming and daunting task. Efficiency in scientific literature search is, therefore, an important skill that can save many frustrating hours.

In this post we share some experiences and best practices – more specifically, some simple tips and tricks that we learned over the years that may help you streamline your literature searches on one of the largest scientific online databases, PubMed.

Basic PubMed Tips and Tricks

  • Narrow your results by applying ready-to-use search filters
    Various filter options, such as article type and publication dates, are displayed to the left of your search results and can be applied by a simple click. Keep in mind: Articles that are “in process” are not yet fully PubMed indexed and lack article features used in these filters. By applying filters, you therefore risk excluding the most recent publications from your query results! Also note: Filters stay active during your search session until you change or clear them!
  • Limit your search to particular fields by using field tags
    Sometimes you may want to focus your search on articles that contain your keyword in a specific section or field in a citation, such as the title. PubMed allows you to do so by using field tags (eg, [ti] for a title word). A field tag must always follow your search term and cannot precede it. A complete list of all PubMed field tags and their descriptions can be found here
  • Locate a particular article by using the “Single Citation Matcher”
    If you don’t have the complete citation of an article, PubMed provides a simple tool, the “Single Citation Matcher,” to find your reference by entering article information by field. An auto-complete feature is available and will help you eliminate the chance of typos and other errors
  • Track down an exact phrase by putting your search term in quotation marks (“. . .”)
    Similar to other databases, PubMed allows searches with double inverted quotes for fixed-phrase searches. Keep in mind: PubMed will return search results containing only the specified words in that exact order. Therefore, erroneous spelling or inaccurate ordering of words will lead to inaccurate search outcomes!
  • Combine your search terms using Boolean logic
    The Boolean operators AND, OR, and NOT can be great time-savers by focusing your searches to fit your specific needs and demands. Including the operator AND between keywords allows you to narrow your search to articles containing each specified search term, while addition of the operator OR is used to expand your query to contain any of the terms. In contrast, NOT will exclude every citation that contains the term following this operator. Note that when you conduct a search with multiple keywords, the default operator in PubMed is AND
  • Two additional tips
    • To make even better use of Boolean operators, parentheses can be used to “nest” concepts that should be processed as a unit. For example: common cold AND (vitamin C OR zinc)
    • The “History” tab featured under the “Advanced” settings displays your searches in the actual order they were run (#1, #2, etc). From this page, it is possible to combine previous searches into new and more complex search strategies using Boolean operators. For example: (#1 OR #2) AND cancer

Using the above tips, an infinite range of search strategies and queries can be created. However, keep in mind that less can be more! Adding different techniques sequentially may be more productive than combining them all at once.