PubMed: Basic

Guide to searching PubMed



  • Develop your research topic by asking a good question.  Write your question in a complete sentence, being as specific as possible: 
    • Will continuous passive motion therapy (CPM therapy) following knee replacement help achieve optimal range of motion?
  • A well-built question usually has four parts and uses PICO:
              P I C O                                 Example             
 Patient  Problem  Population  Patients with Knee Replacements
 Intervention  CPM
 Comparison  No CPM
 Outcome  Optimal range of motion


Identify Search Terms

  • As shown above, use PICO to develop, clarify and finally, condense your question into major concepts:  Knee replacement, CPM, range of motion.
  • Search for keywords and synonyms for your concepts: ROM, "knee arthroplasty", TKR, "continuous passive motion";
  • Search for MeSH (Medical Subject Headings)  for your concepts;
  • If acronyms are used such as 'CPM' also search the full-name in quotes: "continuous passive motion". 


Choose Sources

  • Search in the right sources.  Your needs will determine the best database to use. PubMed or MEDLINE are excellent first choices for most clinical research topics.  If you're looking for best evidence, Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews is an excellent choice.  Other good sources to check include CINAHL and HealthSource
  • Limit your results. You can often limit your search by age groups, gender, type of article, language, etc.

Adapted from Modesto Junior College and University of Canberra.


Searching Medical Literature

There are two basic types of search queries  Keyword and Controlled Vocabulary (MeSH).

Keyword Searches

  • Allows you to enter a search term that you believe best describes the term as used in an information source. While this search strategy will retrieve what you've entered, you also need to search using synonyms and variations of the search term to make sure that you have retrieved all of the relevant records.
  • For example, if you are looking for information on "heart attack" using a textword search, you also need to search using the terms "heart attacks," "myocardial infarction," "myocardial infarctions" and so on.

Subject Searches (Controlled Vocabulary, MeSH) 

  • Controlled vocabularies are standardized, hierarchical lists designated to represent the major subject concepts and conditions contained within a database. They change from database to database. The hierarchical nature of the lists benefits search strategies by allowing broad concepts to be narrowed in a manner that stays consistent within that framework.  MeSH, or Medical Subject Headings, are used in MEDLINE and PubMed.
  • Before an item is added to a database or catalog, its subject matter is determined. Specific terms that apply to the item are chosen from a pre-determined vocabulary, no matter what terminology the author used within the item. This way, there is a consistent method for retrieving the same information concepts even though different terminology or keywords have been used. The listing is standardized and somewhat predictable. For example, the term "heart attack" is always listed as "myocardial infarction" within a controlled vocabulary structure such as MeSH (Medical Subject Headings).

Adapted from Valpariaso University.


The Basics: Simple Searching & Viewing Results

For a basic keyword search, type the word or words you are looking for into the search box, and click Search. PubMed will suggest phrases that complete your entry or that are related to the words you're entering.  The next page will show your search results.

Setting Filters (aka Limits)

Use the filters on the left sidebar to narrow down your results by specifying different categories such as language, type of article, age, gender, etc.  



Changing the Display Settings

Click Summary at the top left hand of the page to change how much information you see for each citation.  To change the number of citations shown per page, choose 20 per page. To change how the citations are sorted, click on Sort by Relevance.   



Use My NCBI to permanently set your display settings via your personal log-in.  Learn more about My NCBI here.

Look for the  icon or another "free full text" icon in the top right of the abstract page, and click the icon to access the full article text.


Saving, Printing, and Emailing Search Results

As you search PubMed you can temporarily store articles of interest on the Clipboard. To add an article to the Clipboard, check the box next to the article, and select Clipboard from the Send To link located to the upper-right corner above your search results. 

After you have placed items in the Clipboard, a clipboard icon will appear at the upper-right of your screen. To view all the items in the Clipboard, click that link. Articles already posted to the clipboard are marked below their citation information with "Item in Clipboard" in both the Summary and Abstract displays.


Use the Send To menu to choose what you want to do with your saved citations:

  • File:   save the citations as a text file.
  • Email:  email them to yourself or someone else.
  • My Bibliography:  if you have an My NCBI account.  Save items within your My NCBI account.
  • Collections:  saves your citations to your My NCBI account.
  • Order:  only if you know that the Library doesn't subscribe to the journal(s) and you have a Loansome Doc account set up.
  • Choose Citation Manager to import citations into RefWorks.

To print your citations, select Print from your Internet's browser window when you're looking at your Clipboard items. 

To remove an item from the Clipboard, click the Remove from Clipboard link below the citation. 


Adapted from UNC Health Sciences Library.