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MEDLINE Interfaces and Related Resources on the Web



[from pages 1-2, Katcher BS. MEDLINE: a guide to effective searching in PubMed and other interfaces. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Ashbury Press; 2006. Copyright 2006, Brian Katcher.]

When you open PubMed, the most widely used interface to MEDLINE, you are greeted with a query box. It looks like Google’s, but the query boxes of PubMed and Google are portals into vastly different worlds. Google brings you to the World Wide Web, a huge and amorphous mass of documents that are connected by links. It analyzes those links to impose order on the Web. MEDLINE, on the other hand, is an exquisitely organized bibliographic database. PubMed makes extensive use of MEDLINE’s organization in translating our queries.

MEDLINE is the collective product of a small army of indexers, who have, for more than 40 years, systematically characterized the contents of more than 4,800 journals that publish information about the causes, prevention, and treatment of disease and injury. Each of the more than thirteen million journal articles, letters, and editorials that are catalogued in MEDLINE has been read by a skilled indexer, who has assigned to it roughly a dozen Medical Subject Headings, drawn from a controlled vocabulary of more than 23,000 such terms (MeSH terms). These MeSH terms, which describe concepts, are sometimes qualified with subheadings. Additional concepts are indexed in Supplementary Concept Records, and the articles themselves are characterized as to their Publication Type. This manual indexing (and disambiguation), which augments an extensive system of automated indexing, is applied with a high degree of consistency. If you understand the elaborate indexing schemes that are embodied in MEDLINE, you can use this understanding to search it with a high degree of precision.

If you have not had much experience with MEDLINE, this might be a good time to look at the Web-based MEDLINE tutorials described in Appendix A. This book will teach you how to use MEDLINE, but tutorials (and classes) will speed the process and will facilitate this book’s main mission, teaching you to think critically in applying MEDLINE’s power.

Size is also important. Because its coverage is so broad, MEDLINE can be thought of as the index to the world’s medical literature, the on-line catalogue of biomedical journal articles. It is an essential tool for assessing the scientific basis for current knowledge about health. MEDLINE is produced by the National Library of Medicine and is the largest and best organized database of its kind. But MEDLINE searching can be daunting, producing results that are too comprehensive or too limited to be useful, hence this book.

The story of MEDLINE’s origins and evolution, which sets the stage for understanding how this powerful database works, is told in Chapter 1. Chapter 2 describes the key indexing elements that are used to characterize articles in MEDLINE. This chapter also begins to show how this indexing information can be used to find articles, using the PubMed interface to MEDLINE as an example. Because Medical Subject Headings (MeSH terms) are so important to searching in MEDLINE, they are described in greater depth in Chapter 3. (Throughout the text, MeSH terms are set in small capital letters.) Chapter 4 illustrates how Publication Types can be used to focus a search, and Chapter 5 contains some practical tips.

There is no single, perfect way to search in MEDLINE. This book is designed to help you search with an understanding of what is possible and not be disappointed.


Updated December 13, 2015