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Scientific Literature

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Publication Types

Primary Literature

In the sciences, the primary literature presents or comments upon the immediate results of research activities. It often includes analyses of data collected in the field or the laboratory. It is very current and specialized. Examples of primary literature in the sciences include:

  • primary research articles in peer-reviewed journals
  • dissertations and theses
  • technical reports
  • conference proceedings

Secondary Literature

The secondary literature summarizes and synthesizes the primary literature. It is both broader and less current than the primary literature. Since most information sources in the secondary literature contain exhaustive bibliographies, they can be useful for finding more information on a particular topic. Examples of secondary literature in the sciences include:

  • monographs (books dealing with a specific area of research in the sciences)
  • literature reviews (or review articles) - More about literature reviews

Tertiary Literature

The tertiary literature deals with broad, discipline-level topics in the sciences (like biochemistry or evolution) and can be a useful starting point when looking for background information on a research topic. The tertiary literature primarily reports very well-established facts in the scientific literature. Examples of tertiary literature in the sciences include:

  • encyclopedias
  • textbooks
  • handbooks

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About Literature Reviews

What is a literature review?

Literature reviews (also called review articles) survey and synthesize primary research on a particular topic.

  • They are articles authored by researchers and published in scholarly journals
  • They summarize multiple primary research articles
  • They are secondary literature

Why are literature reviews a good starting point for researching a topic?

  • They provide an overview of a particular area of study
  • Their extensive reference lists may be used to locate further relevant articles
  • They may provide ideas for narrowing a too-broad topic

How can I tell if an article is a literature review?

Usually the abstract or introduction to a literature review will state the authors' intention to survey or analyze the literature on a particular topic. Literature reviews usually have extensive bibliographies, with perhaps 50 - 200 sources cited. Literature reviews usually do NOT present data or other very specific results of research.

Note that many articles that present primary research include a section that reviews pertinent scientific literature as background for the paper: this isn't the same thing as a literature review or review article.

In BIOSIS, literature reviews are identified as such in the "Literature Type" field

Learn more about finding literature reviews in BIOSIS

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Peer Review

Peer review is the process by which most scholarly journals evaluate articles submitted for publication. The "peer" part of peer review refers to the fact that the individuals who evaluate the articles for journals are researchers working in the same area as the author.

Publishing in the peer-reviewed literature:

  • Adds to the body of scientific knowledge
  • Connects researchers working in the same area and keeps them up-to-date on new advances in their field
  • Helps researchers to gain a wider audience for their findings and ideas, advance their careers, and obtain funding for further research
  • Is an indication of quality; that other researchers consider the work to have merit

The peer review process

  • A researcher writes a manuscript describing the results of his/her research and submits it to a journal
  • The editor of the journal makes an initial determination: is the manuscript a good fit for the journal?
  • If so, the editor passes the manuscript along to peer reviewers (other researchers in the same field), who evaluate the manuscript and make a recommendation
  • Reviewers may recommend immediate publication, publication with revisions, or rejection of the manuscript

Reviewers evaluate manuscripts based upon their scientific validity and the significance of their contribution to the body of scientific knowledge.

Once an article is published in a peer-reviewed journal, it may appear in print, online, or both, depending on the journal's format. In any case, journal articles are indexed in article databases like BIOSIS. Researchers, students, and others interested in the scientific literature can search article databases to locate peer-reviewed articles of interest to them.

Peer review is not a guarantee

Articles that are peer-reviewed have been carefully evaluated by experts in the field, but this doesn't mean that everything in the peer-reviewed literature is correct. Results published in peer-reviewed articles may later be found to be unsound, or may simply be contradicted by new findings. The continual re-evaluation of previous research findings is one of the primary mechanisms by which scientific understanding is advanced.

However, information in the peer reviewed literature has been subjected to rigorous scrutiny by experts in the field, which is not necessarily true of non-peer reviewed publications. Consequently, scientific claims made in the non-peer reviewed literature should be considered with an extra degree of skepticism.

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Identifying Peer Reviewed Articles

Look at the article:

  • Is there a bibliography or list of references at the end?
  • Is there an abstract (a summary of the article) at the beginning? Not all peer-reviewed articles have abstracts, but many do.
  • Is there information about the authors' affiliations? Are they affiliated with universities or other research organizations? Do they have Ph.D.s?

Look at the journal in which the article was published:

  • If online, can you find an "About this journal" link? You can often find out here whether the journal is peer reviewed.
  • Is there an editorial board? In print journals, this can often be found on the inside front cover or within the first few pages of the journal issue.

Still not sure? Here are some examples of peer reviewed and non-peer reviewed science publications online:

Peer reviewed Not peer reviewed
Science Scientific American
Nature National Geographic
Ecology Birding Magazine

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