Searching PubMed to Retrieve Publications on the COVID-19 Pandemic: Comparative Analysis of Search Strings

Jeffrey V Lazarus, Adam Palayew, Lauge Neimann Rasmussen, Tue Helms Andersen, Joseph Nicholson, Ole Norgaard

14 Citationer (Scopus)


BACKGROUND: Since it was declared a pandemic on March 11, 2020, COVID-19 has dominated headlines around the world and researchers have generated thousands of scientific articles about the disease. The fast speed of publication has challenged researchers and other stakeholders to keep up with the volume of published articles. To search the literature effectively, researchers use databases such as PubMed.

OBJECTIVE: The aim of this study is to evaluate the performance of different searches for COVID-19 records in PubMed and to assess the complexity of searches required.

METHODS: We tested PubMed searches for COVID-19 to identify which search string performed best according to standard metrics (sensitivity, precision, and F-score). We evaluated the performance of 8 different searches in PubMed during the first 10 weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic to investigate how complex a search string is needed. We also tested omitting hyphens and space characters as well as applying quotation marks.

RESULTS: The two most comprehensive search strings combining several free-text and indexed search terms performed best in terms of sensitivity (98.4%/98.7%) and F-score (96.5%/95.7%), but the single-term search COVID-19 performed best in terms of precision (95.3%) and well in terms of sensitivity (94.4%) and F-score (94.8%). The term Wuhan virus performed the worst: 7.7% for sensitivity, 78.1% for precision, and 14.0% for F-score. We found that deleting a hyphen or space character could omit a substantial number of records, especially when searching with SARS-CoV-2 as a single term.

CONCLUSIONS: Comprehensive search strings combining free-text and indexed search terms performed better than single-term searches in PubMed, but not by a large margin compared to the single term COVID-19. For everyday searches, certain single-term searches that are entered correctly are probably sufficient, whereas more comprehensive searches should be used for systematic reviews. Still, we suggest additional measures that the US National Library of Medicine could take to support all PubMed users in searching the COVID-19 literature.

TidsskriftJournal of Medical Internet Research
Udgave nummer11
Sider (fra-til)e23449
StatusUdgivet - 26 nov. 2020


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