From PubMed to Published: How to Use PubMed to Generate Ideas, Find Sources & More
By day, I am a research scientist for a biotech company; but by night (and by lunch!), I’m a freelance writer. During the day, I often need to consult scientific and medical literature databases to support my research, but I also use them to support my writing — for idea generation, securing interviews, background reading, and much more — and I’m happy to show you how to use them, in ways you may have never thought of, for your own writing!
One of the absolute best scientific/medical literature databases is PubMed. PubMed is a free database maintained by the United States National Library of Medicine (NLM) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). As recently as February 2013, PubMed had over 22.5 million records, with about 500,000 new records being added each year!
My writing career has primarily been focused on historical publications. One of my special interests is 19th-century medicine, especially surgery and drugs employed during the Civil War. About fifteen years ago, when I was just starting to write for publication, I took a break from entering scientific keywords into PubMed, and simply typed: “Civil War.”
The search yielded a bounty of results: case studies of famous surgeries, “then vs. now” comparisons of Civil War and modern medical practices, descriptions of natural products used as medicines, biographies, and much more.
I used one of the more recent hits to secure an interview with a surgeon and wrote an article for a monthly historical publication; that first article led to a regular column and a spot on the masthead; and a couple years of connections made and columns written, all through PubMed, provided enough material for a book of invited expert essays on Civil War medicine!
Here are five strategies to generate ideas, interviews, and/or articles from PubMed:
1. Learn the Ropes
With more than twenty million individual records, PubMed is not the best place to “window shop” for ideas. Start by using the PubMed Quick Start Guide to learn how to make effective searches.
2. Location, Location, Location
If you live in or near a city with a major hospital or university, consider using the institution as a keyword to generate ideas for articles about groundbreaking medical research being conducted in your own community (great for newspapers or local/regional magazines)!
As an example, I live near Houston, Texas, which is home to many world-class hospitals and research institutions, including the renowned M. D. Anderson Cancer Center. Entering “M. D. Anderson” as a keyword yields dozens of links to medical journal articles for just the first few months of 2013!
Admittedly, some of them appear daunting: “Allogeneic hematopoietic stem cell transplantation” and “Mucoepidermoid Carcinoma” don’t exactly roll off the tongue. But keep looking! You’ll also see links to articles such as “A new era of radiotherapy” or “Pancreatic Cancer Screening: What We Do and Do Not Know.” Either of these — and many others — could lead to interesting interviews with scientists, nurses, physicians, or surgeons in your community.
You might also consider working with the Public Affairs/Communications office at the institution as they will be interested in spreading the word about advances being made by their team.
3. Think Outside the Box
Heath care issues cross every segment of our society, including big picture issues such as public policy debates at all levels of government. More important, these issues have a tremendous impact on our daily lives, from our fitness and health challenges to those of our families.
Be creative with the use of your keywords, and you’ll be surprised at the results, just as I was when I first typed in “Civil War.”
As an example, rather than using “sports medicine” as a keyword (which yields more than 20,000 hits), try something that “hits” closer to home, such as “Little League”: there are fewer results (about 75) and they may be easier to adapt to a general interest audience in your community or targeted publication with articles on shoulder injuries, performance-enhancing drugs, avoiding overuse, and more. [Let us know in the comments below what kind of unique keywords you have tried on PubMed!]
4. Follow Through
Once you have identified an article — or several — that intrigues you, take the next step by reading the article. The vast majority of the results will at least have an abstract or summary of the article and also information about the author(s), such as their institution or e-mail address. Many of the results also have links to the full-text, sometimes free or sometimes through a pay wall.
You can also contact the lead author (or institution) and they will generally be happy to send you a hard copy or e-copy of the article. It’s important to note that the actual articles are protected by copyright by the journals in which they were printed, so be courteous (and obey the law) by not posting the entire article on your website, blog, or in a printed article.
Often, though, the abstract will be sufficient to help you formulate some interview questions or get started on other research leads.
5. Make PubMed Work for YOU
Want to keep the idea engine running? Make PubMed do the work for you by setting up a keyword alert. The database will automatically search new entries and deliver a report to your inbox. For example, for years I have been getting weekly e-mails for keywords such as “Civil War” or “Abraham Lincoln.” Sometimes there are no new articles, but even a handful of hits a month provides me enough material for another column.
Just remember: you don’t have to be a brain surgeon to make effective use of medical and scientific literature databases to help your freelance writing career!
Jim Schmidt lives near Houston, Texas, where he is a pharmaceutical research scientist with a biotech company. He is the author of more than sixty articles in publications such as Learning Through History, Chemical Heritage, World War II, The New York Times, and The Civil War News. He has also authored, edited, or contributed to five books on American history. He blogs at Civil War Medicine (and Writing).
Stick figure by Jim Schmidt.