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Search tip #15: Improve your PubMed search by using MeSH terms

Published on
September 28, 2020

MeSH terms are a powerful tool to help you search for literature in the medical field. Do you know what they are and how to use them?

What are MeSH terms?

MeSH stands for Medical Subject Headings. It is a controlled vocabulary of biomedical- and health-related terms to describe the subject of a journal article. The terms are standardized keywords, from the US National Library of Medicine. They are used in different databases, including PubMed, to index, catalogue and search for information.  About 90% of PubMed records are indexed with MeSH terms.

How to use MeSH terms?

When you enter search terms, PubMed automatically includes alternate spellings and MeSH terms related to your phrase. By selecting MeSH terms yourself for your search query, you can make your search more specific. You can find the MeSH terms in the MeSH database. If, for example, you enter heart attack in the search field, you will see that this term is indexed under the MeSH term “myocardial infarction”. Additionally, a definition of the term is given together with other related terms. MeSH terms are arranged hierarchically by subject category. The MeSH database shows a specific MeSH term in this hierarchy or tree structure. You can select terms located higher in the structure to broaden your search, or select more specific terms lower in the structure to narrow it.

If you want to use a MeSH term in your search query in PubMed, you can enter the search term with [Mesh] after the term. Remember that a search with only MeSH terms will not retrieve the most recent articles. It takes some time before MeSH terms are assigned to a record. In some cases there is no appropriate MeSH term for your search query. Therefore, it is important to also add non-MeSH terms to your query.

The MeSH database is also useful to find search terms for your search queries in other databases. The MeSH database can help you find related terms/synonyms to use as search terms in your query for a specific concept.