10 tips for navigating peer-reviewed biomedical literature

Navigating the peer-reviewed biomedical literature

First launched in 1996, PubMed is an essential tool for medical researchers and scientists. This free search engine allows access to the National Institutes of Health MEDLINE database of abstracts on life sciences and biomedical topics. PubMed currently includes more than 27 million records going back to 1966. Some older high-impact records are included – even a few exceptional publications dating to the early 1800s.

“Navigating the peer-reviewed literature is a key skill in academic medicine. Whether you’re new to using PubMed or have relied on it for years, there are many lesser-known techniques and resources that are helpful,” says Heidi Marleau, associate director, Ebling Library. Here are ten tips:

  1. Search logic matters. In basic search mode, be mindful of how your query will include or exclude results. For example, if you wish to find all publications authored by Dr. Jane Elizabeth Doe, searching with query Doe JE would return publications where the middle initial was included, but would miss any publications where only the first name was included. Since “doe” is also a common word meaning female deer, publications relating to deer research would appear as well. A query such as “Doe JE” OR “Doe J” [author] will provide more relevant results. Ebling Library at University of Wisconsin-Madison offers brief video tutorials about basic and advanced PubMed search techniques.
  2. You can create your own sharable collection of publications directly in PubMed. This is extremely useful for principal investigators applying for NIH funding, who are required to file NIH Biosketch forms listing a comprehensive publication history. By creating a collection of your publications and making the collection public, you can include the URL of the collection directly on the Biosketch form. PubMed offers tutorials on creating a Collection and sharing Collections. You’ll have to add new publications as they are released, but the collection URL will remain the same.
  3. student studying at Ebling libraryPubMed’s Clinical Queries allows you to use clinically-relevant categories to navigate the literature. In Clinical Query you can enter a search term (for example, “histone methyltransferase,”) and then narrow the results by clinical categories (etiology, diagnosis, therapy, prognosis, or clinical prediction guides) and scope (broad or narrow). You can also see which publications are clinical studies, systematic reviews, or pertain to medical genetics.
  4. Was your research funded by a federal agency? Use BuckySubmit to make your article publicly accessible—which is a compliance requirement. In this new campus-wide submission service, researchers can visit the Ebling Library website and follow the links to submit their manuscript once it has been accepted for publication. BuckySubmit staff review the manuscript to ensure it meets the federal funder’s requirements, and then file it with the appropriate federal agencies.
  5. Check out PubMed Special Queries for search interfaces tailored to specific topics. In addition to the Clinical Queries interface, there are over two dozen other topic-specific search interfaces that are useful for targeted navigation of the peer-reviewed literature. These include search queries devoted to health services research, electronic health records information sources, comparative effectiveness research, specific disease states (e.g., HIV/AIDS, cancer) or socioeconomic topics in medicine such as health disparities.
  6. Try this tutorial about searching for literature on drugs or chemicals in PubMed. Certain techniques are helpful when searching for information on specific drugs or chemical agents in PubMed. This tutorial walks you through nine different strategies.
  7. Power up your search strategy using Medical Subject Headings (MeSH). When you type a search query into PubMed and look over the results, you’re only seeing the surface of the process that’s actually taking place. Most publications have Medical Subject Headings (MeSH) terms attributed to it, which is a controlled taxonomy of terms. When you enter a word query, your phrasing is “translated” to MeSH terms. But you can also navigate the literature using MeSH terms themselves, which can be incredibly powerful. To learn more, watch this video.
  8. There’s a mobile-friendly version of PubMed. If you visit the PubMed website on a smartphone, it should default to a version of the site that was developed to be mobile-optimized with an updated user interface based on feedback and testing. PubMed Mobile includes the same 28 million (and counting) citations for biomedical literature as PubMed.
  9. Citation manager software greatly reduces the time and effort of staying up-to-date with the literature and adding citations to manuscripts. Some of the most popular systems include EndNote and Zotero. EndNote, a citation management database, is designed to help you import records, collect, organize, and save bibliographic citations/references, and to insert citations directly into research papers using any one of hundreds of style formats. Zotero is a similar system that is free and open-source. Workshops are frequently offered for both systems by professional staff at Ebling Library.
  10. There’s a world of databases, training opportunities, and consultative help available in the Health Science Learning Center’s Ebling Library. Have a question? You’re not alone: In 2015-16, librarians and specialists at Ebling responded to 2,913 questions about references. The library offers training in a wide range of topics related to literature navigation and management including regularly-offered workshops and classes.

In summary: How we interact with the literature can affect the course of clinical practice, teaching, and research.

“Information literacy in the medical sciences is a lifelong skill – databases and search interfaces change continually. Staying aware of these changes can help you reduce frustration, save time, and often can help spark creative and literature-informed hypotheses,” says Marleau. Any questions? Please don’t hesitate to contact the Ask a Librarian service at Ebling Library.

Photo credits: top, Department of Medicine/Clint Thayer; inline image, UW-Madison University Communications/Jeff Miller