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The Quest: My 2 Favorite Tricks for Searching PubMed

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Credit: CDC/Debora Cartagena

The short item I wrote about cancer immunotherapy quickly went viral on Monday and became the most-read article on Scientific American’s website. Seems like a good time to show folks interested in conducting their own medical searches how much deeper they can get into the topic on their own—if they know how and where to look.

Readers of my series of posts about online medical searching know how much I like PubMed. But I wonder if the folks at the National Library of Medicine (NLM) have ever thought of using the two shortcuts I’m about to describe?

Let’s say you’ve found an article that you’re interested in and, for argument’s sake, let’s say it’s the feature article about cancer immunotherapy that Jedd Wolchok wrote for the May issue of Scientific American. (It also happens to be the article I pointed to with my blog post.)

You want to know what else there is in the scientific literature about this topic—but you don’t want to go through thousands and thousands of links to find the best hits.

The first trick lets you do a broad search without getting overwhelmed.

The second trick lets you do a narrower search that tells you who else has done closely related research.

The Broad Search

The Trick: Find the PubMed entry for the article that you thought was so helpful and then click on the related citations link just below it, which allows the NLM’s own structured data algorithms to do the searching for you.

The Steps:

1. Go to, click on the Advanced search button right under the search box and “use the builder to create your search.”

2. Where the first box says “All Fields,” use the drop-down menu to pick Author and type in “Wolchok.” (Notice how the term auto-completes; always a good sign.)

3. Hit return and you have every article in the scientific literature in which someone named Wolchok was either the sole author or a co-author.

4. And right there at the top of the list is “Cancer’s Off Switch,” by Wolchok JD in Scientific American. (No, not every consumer magazine is indexed by PubMed, but ours is; tells you something right there—doesn’t it?)

5. Notice that the last line of the entry includes a link for “Related Citations” and click on that. Up comes a bunch of articles that gives you a broad range of articles in which researchers are trying out different ways of stopping a tumor’s growth or spread—from the original article on immunotherapy, to destroying a tumor’s blood vessels to starving a tumor of glucose. Each entry going down the list goes a little farther afield than the one above it.

Obviously you can start with any article—as long as it is indexed on PubMed (And why would you trust an article that’s not on PubMed?). I tend to do this kind of search when I have found a good article and I want to put it in context—what else has been tried? In other words, I don’t want to read 27 versions of the same thing. I want to get a broader sense of what’s out there.

The Narrow Search

The Trick: Find the PubMed entry for the article that you thought was so helpful, click on the author’s name, click “Review” under Article types on the left and then click on “related citations”

The Steps:

1. Go to, click on the Advanced search button right under the search box and “use the builder to create your search.” (Steps 1 through 3 are the same as in the broad search above)

2. Where the first box says “All Fields,” use the drop-down menu to pick Author and type in “Wolchok.”

3. Hit return to give you a list of every article in PubMed in which someone named Wolchok is an author.

4. Click “review” under the “Article types on the left to filter your search so that you get only a list of review articles written by Wolchok.

5. Scan the list until you find the one that’s closest to your particular interest—say the one about “adverse events” in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology—and click the link for “related citations” that appears right under it.


6.  Now you have a list of about 100 articles by various people researching different aspects of ipilimumab in patients with skin cancer—from a description of the whole class of drugs to which ipilimumab exists to an analysis of rare side effects.

7. Intriguingly, this search gives you different results from a simple search for “ipilimumab and melanoma” on PubMed, which returns about 500 articles—most of them apparently about side effects.  That’s one reason I like to play around with different ways of searching to see how the results may vary.

A more advanced trick is to use the MESH terms—which stands for medical subject heading—embedded within any article to find a comprehensive but compact universe of similar citations. But that’s a subject for a future post.

I also plan to write a post in the coming weeks that compares searching PubMed to searching on popular search engine (Google, Bing, Yahoo. . .)

Have any tricks for using PubMed that you’d like to share? Let us know in the comments below.

Previous posts in The Quest series:

Get the Lowdown on the Pills You’re Popping

$84,000 Miracle Cure Costs Less Than $150 to Make

How To Get A Medical Librarian to Do Your Search for Free

Practical Advice for Online Searches

Or click on this tag: how-to-search-medical-info


About the Author: Christine Gorman is the editor in charge of health and medicine features for SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. Follow on Twitter @cgorman.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Comments 4 Comments

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  1. 1. jamesian 10:58 am 05/7/2014

    One trick of mine is using PubMed to get an overview of a medical field. You can choose “reviews only” for your first search, and you can limit the time period to past five years, for example.
    This lets you hear from someone who was chosen as an author of a review of the field, which should hit the major points, before you select the areas you want to dig in for more.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Christine Gorman 11:43 am 05/7/2014

    Thanks, jamesian. That’s a good one.

    Link to this
  3. 3. LilliantheLibrarian 9:29 am 05/8/2014

    I think that is a good approach if you are looking for an author with an uncommon name. But what do you do if your author’s name is Smith? There are many different ways you can search PubMed, which is an awesome tool, I like doing precision searches with tags when I am citation searching. For example: in the simple search field, type smith [au]and dermatitis [ti] and 2007 [dp] (the author is Smith, the word dermatitis is in the title and ythe publication date is 2007). The help section on PubMed is very helpful. I would not suggested using MeSH headings until you really understand them, they can be confusing.

    Link to this
  4. 4. kebil 8:42 pm 05/9/2014

    I agree that MESH terms are a bit more involved, but not much, and they can be super powerful. First use regular string searches to find a bunch of articles that are in the area I want. Then you can go and look up the MESH terms that article is indexed under, and go up or down the tree to broaden or narrow your search. MESH modifiers and qualifiers help you to be even more selective, and the use of the logical operators such as AND, OR, and so on let you weed out a lot of fluff. Such as if you were looking up articles on the MMR vaccine you would use your MESH search term and say NOT Andrew Wakefield, but with the proper syntax and maybe restrict that term to the author field so you don’t exclude articles that talk about Mr Wakefield, just those that he wrote.

    Link to this

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