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Getting the Most out of PubMed Medline: Phrase Searching

Phrase Searching with Quotation Marks

You may have noticed when searching in databases or using Google, that when you enter your terms surrounded by quotation marks - like, "kidney failure" - you get slightly different results than if you entered the term with no quotes.

This is because quotation marks are used for phrase searching.  Phrase searching works a little different in PubMed than in other databses; let us take a closer look:

  • When you surround your search terms with quotation marks, you are telling the database that the words must appear as an exact phrase. In PubMed the following searches break down like this (as of 2/24/2020):
    • kidney failure = 222,332 results
    • "kidney failure" = 98,081 results
  • Searching for the terms with no quotation marks gives us results that contain synonyms and MeSH terms. 
    This "automatic term mapping" includes results that include the phrases "renal insufficiency" and "kidney failure," as well as renal with the word insufficiency and kidney with the word failure.
  • We get fewer results with "kidney failure" because all the results contain the exact phrase.

Using Phrase Searching

Some tips for phrase searching in PubMed:

  • When you search for a phrase in PubMed, it will not be mapped to more specific phrases.

  • However, if the exact phrase you entered is not found, your seach will be processed normally and include automatic term mapping to synonyms and MeSH terms.

  • In PubMed, using a hyphen will trigger a phrase search.

More information about phrase searching is available in the PubMed User Guide,