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Medical Physics

Article databases

Using PubMed effectively

Using PubMed effectively

Sometimes when you search PubMed, you find far more articles than you need or expected, or the search results are not as relevant as you'd like. There are a few tips and tricks that can help you harness the power of PubMed and search more effectively.

To create more effective keyword searches, try these 2 minute tutorials:

More information about subject headings and keywords can be found in the boxes below.

Subject headings - definition

Subject headings are assigned descriptors, similar to hashtags but from a controlled vocabulary, used in some databases to uniformly capture a concept. Searching using these standardized words or phrases, instead of text words, means you do not need to worry as much about synonyms and spelling variations, and also allows you to retrieve more precise results. In MEDLINE, the subject headings are MeSH terms, in Embase, they are EMTREE terms: It is important to keep in mind that the subject headings will in most cases be database-dependent.

Keep in mind that there may be a time delay between the addition of records to databases like MEDLINE and their indexing with subject headings like MeSH terms -- and in some databases, e.g., MEDLINE, some records will never be indexed, even when subject headings are available.

Example: The subject heading for cancer in MEDLINE (via PubMed) is the MeSH term Neoplasms. This means that articles selected for indexing in MEDLINE that are about cancer at a general level will be tagged or indexed with this subject heading, or if the article is about a specific cancer like breast cancer, with a narrower term.

Example: This 1995 article record that is clearly about neoplasms does not contain any MeSH terms capturing that concept given the journal is only indexed (with MeSH terms) in MEDLINE as of volume 12 and this article appears in volume 6.

How you actually use subject headings in a database search (if they're even available) depends on the platform you're searching, e.g., to use the subject heading for 'Neoplasms' in PubMed or Ovid MEDLINE, which can both essentially be used to search MEDLINE:

  • PubMed: The search syntax is "Neoplasms"[Mesh] (You can also enter "Neoplasms"[mh] for the same effect; the safest way to use subject headings is to find them first in the MeSH Database, then to add them to the PubMed Search Builder, and then to Search PubMed). They will then be available in PubMed from Advanced > History and Search Details, and can then be combined with other search lines.
  • Ovid MEDLINE: The search syntax is exp neoplasms/ (The Advanced Search in Ovid MEDLINE at McGill is set up by default to "Map term to subject heading", so if you type in 'cancer', you will get a list of suggested subject headings, with 'Neoplasms' at the top; PubMed does not work that way). 

For thorough searches, you would generally include subject headings and their text word equivalents, plus any alternative terms (related terms, broader terms if needed, specific terms, synonyms, alternative spellings or variants, abbreviations).

Keywords - examples

Example: Keywords (or textwords) for cancer can include cancer / cancers / cancerous / malignancies / malignancy / malignant / metastasis / metastases / metastatic / neoplasia / neoplasm / neoplasms / neoplastic / tumor / tumors / tumour / tumours etc.

  • Note that cancer is a very broad concept that refers to many specific types of cancer as well, such as astrocytomas / carcinoma / chordoma / craniopharyngioma / ependymoma / esthesioneuroblastoma /  glioblastoma / glioma / leukemia / leukaemia / lymphoma / medulloblastoma / melanoma / mesothelioma / myeloma / myelodysplastic syndromes / myeloproliferative disorders / osteosarcoma / retinoblastoma / rhabdomyosarcoma / sarcoma / thymoma etc.
  • To search for a combination of textwords, combine synonyms with OR with the use of truncation/wildcards when applicable, e.g., in Ovid databases: (cancer* OR malignan* OR metasta* OR neoplas* OR tumo?r* OR astrocytoma* OR carcinoma* OR chordoma* OR craniopharyngioma* OR ependymoma* OR esthesioneuroblastoma* OR glioblastoma* OR glioma* OR leuk?emi* OR lymphom* OR medulloblastoma* OR melanom* OR mesothelioma* OR myeloma* OR myelodysplasi* OR myeloproliferative OR osteosarcoma* OR retinoblastoma* OR rhabdomyosarcoma* OR sarcoma* OR thymoma*).mp. etc.
    • Note that the asterisk is a fairly universal symbol for truncation, but other wildcards (e.g., replacing 0 or 1 character with ? in Ovid) will differ depending on the platform used (e.g., Ovid versus EBSCOhost versus Scopus versus Web of Science)
    • The search syntax for searching for textwords will also differ depending on the platform (e.g., (terms).mp. in Ovid can be translated as TS=(terms) in Web of Science)
  • Such a list of terms for a broad concept like cancer is far from exhaustive: Consider narrowing the focus of your question to a particular type of cancer, for example, when possible, or justifying use of broader terms only

Subject headings versus keywords

Subject Headings

Keywords (also called textwords, natural language terms, or free-text terms)

Pre-defined "controlled vocabulary" terms

Natural language terms used by authors in the title, abstract, or author keyword fields (may also be terms used in full text)

Need to know the exact controlled vocabulary term

Need to use the textword equivalents of the subject headings plus alternative terms

Less flexible. Not always an appropriate subject heading available: May need to combine more than one subject heading with AND to capture one concept or combine subject headings with OR when multiple subject headings could be considered synonyms of the same concept

Quick & flexible way to start exploratory searches

Database looks for subjects only in the subject heading or descriptor field

Database looks for terms in selected fields, e.g., title/abstract/author keywords (many databases also allow searching in other fields such as in the affiliation field or publication source field)

Highly relevant results

Generates irrelevant results but can increase the sensitivity of the search (i.e., can pick up records that the subject headings may have missed)


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