Writing a systematic review? Don’t use PubMed

The new iteration of PubMed makes it inadvisable for building searches to inform systematic reviews. Why is this? The new version uses machine learning algorithms working behind the scenes which are invisible to the searcher. That means that transparency and reproducibility is no longer possible. Transparency and reproducibility are of key importance in scientific reporting and experiments. Without these present in the search strategy, a systematic review falls at the first hurdle when being critically appraised.

PRISMA-S was launched recently, outlining all the reporting requirements for literature searching in systematic reviews. Item 8 is: Include the search strategies for each database and information source, copied and pasted exactly as run. Note ‘exactly as run’. This is not possible in PubMed. Medline on the OVID platform (or via EBSCO or other aggregator) is preferred.

Searching Medline via a database aggregator platform has been the preferred practice for building and running search strategies for systematic reviews for over two decades now, mostly because of the ability to use proximity operators. Proximity operators are not available in PubMed and there are no plans to introduce them.

So, can you use PubMed at all? You can use it to search PMC articles, which can be useful for surgical (and other) questions. Care still needs to be taken though, and make sure you capture your search before logging off – PubMed no longer stores search histories.

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