PubMed Tip of the Month: Using MeSH Headings (October 2015)

Including MeSH terms in a PubMed search can help you get more precise results.

What is MeSH? Most of the more than 25 million citations in PubMed come from MEDLINE, the National Library of Medicine’s (NLM) journal citation database. Medical Subject Headings (MeSH) is a controlled vocabulary of standardized terms that indexers (actual humans!) apply to each article in MEDLINE to describe the publication type and topics covered in the article.

Why should you care about MeSH? Biomedical topics are often expressed in different ways. For example, chronic kidney disease may also be called end-stage renal disease, chronic renal failure, or abbreviated as ESRD. The MeSH term for this condition is kidney failure, chronic. Using MeSH terms in a PubMed search helps you find articles regardless of how an author referred to that topic. MeSH terms also allow you to search on all concepts in a broad category without having to enter every term. MeSH headings are arranged in a hierarchy of broader and narrower terms; when you search a broader term, all the narrower terms are automatically included in your search. For example, the MeSH term for cancer, neoplasms, can be used to search for all types of cancer.

How do I find MeSH terms? When you conduct a search in PubMed, the database will try to match your terms to MeSH headings in a process called automatic term mapping. To see how the PubMed translated your search, look for a box labeled ‘Search Details’ in the right column on the results page (you will need to scroll down the page). You can also search the MeSH database directly by choosing ‘MeSH’ from the dropdown menu to the left of the PubMed search box. See this example of the term meningitis in the MeSH database: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/mesh/68008581.

Need help with MeSH? Contact me at laura.pavlech@tufts.edu or 617-636-0385.

-Laura Pavlech

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