Skip to Main Content

WHSL Building a Search Strategy in PubMed: Designing a Search Strategy

A step by step guide on how to design a search strategy using MeSH within PubMed

Other Useful PubMed Guides

Searching Systematically

Designing a search strategy is the key to a successful literature search, especially for evidence-based searching. Searching the biomedical literature is a systematic and logical process. Use the flow chart structure in the box below to plan your search, and to optimize retrieval of relevant articles.


Systematic Search Flowchart

Follow each step in the flow chart in a logical sequence:

  1. Identify the key concepts or the intent of the search.
  2. Find the terms you will need (including synonyms, abbreviations, variant spellings, etc.) for each concept. Use MeSH (Medical Subject Headings in PubMed to help you find the correct terms).
  3. Plan your strategy. This will include deciding where you need to use Boolean AND and Boolean OR in order to translate your search query into a statement that can be searched in the database. Note: This will be different to the way in which you search the Internet using Google, for example). For novice searchers, it is useful to think this step through on paper.
  4. Select the appropriate database to search. Use the database that is likely to give answers in your subject area. If in doubt as to which database to use, consult your librarian.
  5. Execute (run) the search.
  6. Evaluate your results.
  7. If you are dissatisfied with your results, run steps 2, 3, 4 and 5 again until your results are satisfactory.
  8. Display your results. Your search will be in the form of a brief citation (author/s, title of article, source [journal title, volume, issue, page numbers]).
  9. Obtain full text documents. Never quote from the abstract that appears in PubMed - You should always attempt to find the original source (the full text of the document), especially where evidence is concerned, as there may be errors introduced in the reproduction of the abstract.