How to download complete XML records from PubMed and extract data

How to download complete XML records from PubMed and extract data. By Kristoffer Magnusson


My first PubMed script (An R Script to Automatically download PubMed Citation Counts By Year of Publication) extracted yearly counts for any number of search strings, by using PubMed’s E-utilities. Specifically, it’s using the esearch-function, which will report the number of hits for your search and/or the articles PMIDs. This method is very reliable and fast if you’re only interested in the number of hits for a given query. However, PubMed’s E-utilities have a lot more features than that, some of which I will use in this article to download complete article records in XML.

How it works

What’s cool about esearch is that you can tell it to save a history of the articles found by your query, and then use another function called efetch to download that history. This is done by adding &usehistory=y to your search, which will generate this XML (in addition to some other XML-tags):

Once we have extracted the WebEnv string, we just tell PubMed’s efetch to send us the articles saved in WebEnv. There’s one complication, though. PubMed “only” allows us to fetch 10 000 articles in one go, therefore my code includes a loop that will batch download the data, and paste it together in order to create valid XML-code. The XML cutting and pasting is done with gsub, since the unparsed XML-data is just a long string. It’s not the most beautiful solution, but it seems to work.

Now that all XML-data is saved in one object, we just need to parse it an extract whatever PubMed field(s) we’re interested in. I’ve included a function that will parse the XML-code and extract journal counts, although you could use the same method to extract any field.

One example run: Top 20 CBT journals in 2010, 2011 and all time

Top 20 Cognitive Behavior Therapy journals by PubMed citation count. By Kristoffer Magnusson

These two graphs were created by using the following 3 queries (notice that I use single-quotes inside my query). This script does not have the functionality to download different queries automatically for you, so I ran my three searches individually. The R code for searchPubmed() and extractJournal() are at the end of this article.

Reshaping the data and creating the plots

I needed to reshape my data a bit, and combine it into one object, before I used ggplot2 to make the graphs. I did it like this:

Ggplot2 code

Now that I have all my top 20 data in one object in the long format, the ggplot2 code is pretty simple.

Reliability of the method

To check the reliability of my method I compared the number of extracted journals to the total number of hits. These are the numbers:

2010: 1487 / 1488 = 0.999328
2011: 1488 / 1493 = 0.996651
All years: 14345 / 14354 = 0.999373

Since the error is so low, I didn’t bother to check why some journals were left out. My guess is, that they were missing in the original data as well.

The R code for searchPubmed() and extractJournal()

Update 2013-02-23: The script broke when the date in doctype-declaration was changed from 2012 to 2013. I've updated the code, and it should be working now.

Update 2013-08-17: Moved the script to github and fixed the broken batch procedure. It should be more stable now.

Click here to get the source code

Written by Kristoffer Magnusson, a researcher in clinical psychology. You should follow him on Twitter and come hang out on the open science discord Git Gud Science.


Published April 27, 2012 (View on GitHub)

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Archived Comments (19)

michel_moser 2016-10-22

Great functions and code.
I am trying to run them but get some parsing errors saying the xml file which gets downlaoded is malformated (or at least thats how i interpret the error messages).
Could anyone help me with this?


pubmed_count("Petunia AND genome")
pubmed_get("Petunia AND genome", file = "petunia")

pubmed_timeline("pubmed_petunia", regex = "plos")


error parsing attribute name
attributes construct error
Couldn't find end of Start Tag U line 144
error parsing attribute name
attributes construct error
Couldn't find end of Start Tag U line 144
error parsing attribute name
attributes construct error
Couldn't find end of Start Tag U line 1085
error parsing attribute name
attributes construct error
Couldn't find end of Start Tag U line 2008
error parsing attribute name
attributes construct error
..... (skipped some lines)
Error: 1: error parsing attribute name
2: attributes construct error
3: Couldn't find end of Start Tag U line 144
4: error parsing attribute name
5: attributes construct error
6: Couldn't find end of Start Tag U line 144
7: error parsing attribute name
8: attributes construct error
9: Couldn't find end of Start Tag U line 1085
10: error parsing attribute name
11: attributes construct error
12: Couldn't find end of Start Tag U line 2008
13: error parsing attribute name
14: attributes construct error
15: Couldn't find end of Start Tag U line 2008
16: error parsing attribute name
17: attributes construct error
18: Couldn't find end of Start Tag U line 6721
19: error parsing attribute name
20: attributes construct error
21: Couldn't find end of Start Tag U line 6722
22: error parsing attribute name
23: attributes construct error
24: Couldn't find end of Start Tag U line 6722
25: error parsing attribute name
26: attributes construct error
27: Couldn't find end of Start Tag U line 17716
Called from: (function (msg, ...)
if (length(grep("\\\n$", msg)) == 0)
paste(msg, "\n", sep = "")
if (immediate)
if (length(msg) == 0) {
e = simpleError(paste(1:length(messages), messages, sep = ": ",
collapse = ""))
class(e) = c(class, class(e))
messages <<- c(messages, msg)
Browse[1]> Q

Thank you very much!

John Nicholas 2014-02-05

Is it possible to do a search on a subject, and then parse the papers by author? I would like to create a rank order of authors by the number of papers they published. In other words, who are the most prominent authors on a particular subject?

Tobi 2013-12-10

For some reason the xml this generates doesn't export well. The code I'm using is below. Please explain what I'm doing wrong. nothing I'm doing to pub.efetch will turn it into an actual data frame. I think that's the root of the problem. Thanks!

2012=ldply(pub.efetch, data.frame)
write.xml(2012, file="Mazumdar2012.xml")

Fr. 2013-07-20

Hm, code got garbled. Here it is.

Fr. 2013-07-20

I am afraid the code stills breaks at extractJournal(). This is what I get:

> # Get data for 2011
> query pub.efetch cbt_2011 traceback()
5: stop(e)
4: (function (msg, ...)
if (length(grep("\\\n$", msg)) == 0)
paste(msg, "\n", sep = "")
if (immediate)
if (length(msg) == 0) {
e = simpleError(paste(1:length(messages), messages, sep = ": ",
collapse = ""))
class(e) = c(class, class(e))
messages <<- c(messages, msg)
3: .Call("RS_XML_ParseTree", as.character(file), handlers, as.logical(ignoreBlanks),
as.logical(replaceEntities), as.logical(asText), as.logical(trim),
as.logical(validate), as.logical(getDTD), as.logical(isURL),
as.logical(addAttributeNamespaces), as.logical(useInternalNodes),
as.logical(isHTML), as.logical(isSchema), as.logical(fullNamespaceInfo),
as.character(encoding), as.logical(useDotNames), xinclude,
error, addFinalizer, as.integer(options), PACKAGE = "XML")
2: xmlTreeParse(pub.efetch, useInternalNodes = TRUE) at pubmed.R#64
1: extractJournal()

Kristoffer Magnusson 2013-08-17

Thanks for posting the error, it's been fixed now. Sorry for the delay.

Fr. 2013-08-17

Wonderful, will try later today, thanks!

Fr. 2013-08-19

Works perfectly.

Fr. 2014-06-14

There was an issue with the value of RetMax in your code (it should be fixed instead of incremented). I fixed it and remixed the rest of the code to get a bunch of easy-to-use functions: see the pull request on GitHub. Hope you like it!

Kristoffer Magnusson 2014-06-16

Only had time to do a quick glance at your remix, but it look's great. Will look closer at as soon as possible and merge it :) Thanks!

Fr. 2014-06-17

Take your time, no rush at all. I've tried to lay some foundations for what could be a package organised around some core functions (such as pubmed_get to batch download records and pubmed_net to build coauthorship networks). This piece of software could be useful to have in R, so if you're interested, we can work on that. Let me know at the time of your choosing :)

Julien 2013-02-21


Thank you for sharing those functions.

However <- xmlTreeParse(pub.efetch, useInternalNodes = TRUE)

give me this error :

XML declaration allowed only at the start of the document
StartTag: invalid element name

Do you know how to fix it ?



Kristoffer Magnusson 2013-08-17

It should be working now.

Rad 2012-12-22

Hi Kristoffer,

I found a bug in your script may be a misconfiguration on my side but I have all needed library installed and I use the latest R version

Here is the bug, after using cbt_2011 <- extractJournal() I get this error message

Error: 1: XML declaration allowed only at the start of the document
2: StartTag: invalid element name

Any idea ?

Thanks for your script and for sharing it, very helpful


Sugam Khetrapal 2015-11-20

Hi Rad,

Were you able to resolve this issue.

We are getting the same error message and do not know how to proceed.


Scott Chamberlain 2012-05-28

Where does the function 'count' come from? Which package is it in? (see lilne 70 of your last script block)

Thanks, Scott Chamberlain

Kristoffer Magnusson 2012-05-28

Hi Scott,

'count' is from the 'plyr'-package.

Matthias 2012-04-30

Hey Kristoffer,

thank you for this inspiring code!
My R does not know the function count in line 69, but

journal <- data.frame(freq=sort(table(journal)))
journal$x <- factor(rownames(journal))

will do as replacement.

Regards, Matthias

Kristoffer Magnusson 2012-04-30


I'd missed this line "require("plyr")", now 'count' should be working. Thanks for commenting!