The Different Types of Scientific Literature

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THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF SCIENTIFIC LITERATURE Scientists communicate the results of their research to other scientists primarily through the scientific literature, which therefore constitutes a permanent repository of scientific knowledge and a record of progress in scientific enquiry. Different types of scientific literature exist, normally referred to as the primary, secondary, tertiary and grey literature. The PRIMARY LITERATURE refers to accounts of research carried out personally by an indiv
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  THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF SCIENTIFIC LITERATURE Scientists communicate the results of their research to other scientists primarilythrough the scientific literature , which therefore constitutes a permanentrepository of scientific knowledge and a record of progress in scientific enquiry.Different types of scientific literature exist, normally referred to as the primary,secondary, tertiary and grey literature.The PRIMARY LITERATURE refers to accounts of research carried out personally byan individual scientist or as collaboration by a group of scientists, which ispublished in a peer-reviewed scientific journal . These accounts, commonlycalled ‘ papers ’, are written in the particular format specified by the journal towhich it is submitted for publication. Normally journals require a paper to consistof a title, abstract, keywords, introduction, material & methods, results,discussion, acknowledgements and references. Papers are submitted to the journal editor who then asks a number of recognised experts in the area of studyaddressed by the paper (called ‘ referees ’) to give an opinion on whether thework reported presents new scientific information, and to report on the meritsand deficiencies of the work. On the basis of the referees’ reports, the editor mayaccept the paper as it was submitted, or may require minor revision from theauthors, or may require major revision, or the paper may be refused outright.This formal reviewing process is known as ‘ peer review ’. There are differenttypes of journal that range from international to regional to local and there arealso systems that grade the importance of journals on the basis of how oftenpapers carried by the journal are cited in other scientific papers (called the ‘ impact factor ’).Most primary literature is published in scholarly journals, but some research ispublished as monographs, theses or dissertations, conference papers and reports.In the world of science, the contribution of an individual scientist to theadvancement of knowledge is usually gauged partly on the number of publications that the scientist has contributed to, especially those published ininternational peer-reviewed journals with high impact factors.The SECONDARY LITERATURE consists of publications that rely on primary sourcesfor information. Here it is not a requirement for the authors to have done thework themselves, since the purpose of the publication is to summarise andsynthesize knowledge in a specific area for other scientists who already have anunderstanding of the topic; however, the authors of secondary publications wouldnormally have worked and published primary literature in the area they arewriting about. The secondary literature includes review journals, monographicbooks and textbooks, handbooks and manuals. Although normally written in ascientific style, secondary publications are not organised in the same way thatprimary publications are; however, it is a universal requirement that they arefully referenced and that most of these references are to the primary literature.Scientists use the secondary literature to gain an overview of research areas thatare close to or relevant to their own, or to familiarise themselves with existingresearch in new topics on which they plan to start working.The TERTIARY LITERATURE consists of published works that are based on primaryor secondary sources and that are aimed at scientists who work in different areasfrom the subject matter of the publication, or towards an interested but layaudience. Such publications are normally written in a popular rather than ascientific style and while such publications may include a short bibliography ,they do not usually include references to the primary literature. Examples of the  tertiary literature include science magazines, newsletters, science articles innewspapers, introductory textbooks and encyclopaedias.The GREY LITERATURE refers to sources of scientific information that are notpublished and distributed in the usual manner and which therefore may bedifficult to obtain. Gray literature includes theses and dissertations, technicalreports with a limited distribution, journals published by special interest groupsthat have a limited distribution, abstracts of conference papers and conferenceproceedings that are only made available to conference participants,Environmental Impact Statements, some types of Government documents,working papers, and some types of online documents. Note that being classifiedas ‘gray literature’ in no way implies that the publication has little scientific merit,since some types of grey literature are rigorously peer reviewed and count asprimary literature; ‘grey’ refers more to the limited distribution and difficulty of accessing the publication than to its content.-----It is important to note that the form that a publication takes no guide to itsclassification as primary, secondary or tertiary literature. For example, books maybelong to any of these three categories. A monograph that presents new ideasas a result of scientific research that has been reviewed by a number of referees(usually called ‘readers’ in the case of a book), will count as primary literature (ineffect, a very long scientific paper), whereas an encyclopaedia or sciencemagazine article, even if written by a Nobel laureate, is still tertiary literature.Another example is the case of  conference proceedings . Papers presented atinternational, regional or national conferences, workshops or symposia areconsidered as primary literature if they are peer-reviewed and published, eitheras a book of conference proceedings, or as a special issue of a scientific journal.On the other hand, abstracts of papers presented at a conference, or the papersthemselves, which have not been peer-reviewed, do not count as primaryliterature even if they are published in book form. An in-between case is that of conferences where the papers presented are published as peer-reviewed ‘ extended abstracts ’ (in effect, long summaries of the work that may beformatted in the same way as a journal paper). Normally, such papers presentwork that is in an advanced stage but not yet complete to an audience of peersfor comment and criticism. Most such work is later published in full form inprimary scientific journals.The situation is further complicated by the Internet . Scientific informationavailable on the Internet ranges from absolute rubbish to high quality. There arevery authoritative looking sites that present completely wrong information,sometimes deliberately, whereas at the other end of the spectrum, there areprimary peer-reviewed scientific journals that are published online (normally,but not always, with at least a limited print edition as well). Professional lookingwebsites are no guarantee of quality information. Users of the Internet shouldvery carefully evaluate the source, quality and accuracy of any information thatthey plan to use. (See ‘Evaluating WWW resources’ on the ‘Tips and Links’ webpage of the Department of Biology website at:http://home.um.edu.mt/biology/12_links.html).Patrick J. Schembri13.12.2007
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