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Searching Scientific Literature

Literature of Science


Scientific literature is the principal medium for communicating the results of scientific research and, as such, represents the permanent record of the collective achievements of the scientific community over time. This scientific knowledge base is composed of the individual "end products" of scientific research and discovery and continues to grow as new research builds on earlier research. This new research may add to, substantiate, modify, refine or refute existing knowledge on a specific topic. As a cycle new research and discovery in the laboratory or field is dependent on the existing scientific knowledge base which, in turn, becomes valuable when the new research is incorporated into the scientific knowledge base.

Scientific literature composing the scientific knowledge base is often divided into two basic categories:

  • Primary literature -- publications that report the results of original scientific research. These include journal papers, conference papers, monographic series, technical reports, theses, and dissertations.
  • Secondary literature -- publications that synthesize and condense what is known on specific topics. These include reviews, monographs, textbooks, treatises, handbooks, and manuals. These take time to produce and usually cite key "primary" publications on the topic.

Scientific Research/Publication Cycle

The following chart illustrates common steps involved in the scientific research process (inner circle), the dissemination of research results through the primary and secondary literature (outer circle), and the personal assimilation of this information resulting in new ideas and research (inner circle):

Scientific Research and Publication Cycle

Scientific Journals, Magazines and Series

Scientific serials can be grouped into the following three categories. Our tutorial on selecting sources - Types of Sources summarizes the differences between different types of journals and popular magazines.

    • Journals -- These regularly issued publications contain papers reporting the results of scholarly research in a scientific discipline. Papers published in journals generally go through a peer review process before acceptance and publication.

      Journal papers are the basic "molecular" unit of scientific knowledge base and are the most important "primary" source in the sciences. More than 80% of the scientific research literature is published in this format. Annually 1.5 million articles are published in over 25,000 peer reviewed journals. Cumulatively there have been more than 50 million peer reviewed papers published since the first scientific journal was published in 1665.

    • Magazines and Newsletters -- Articles appearing in these publications tend to be popular in format and scope. They may contain news and perspectives of professional societies and environmental organizations, report on research published in scholarly journals, report on environmental problems and new political initiatives, or contain articles aimed at the layperson.

  • Series - Some longer research studies are published in this format. These publications typically have the following characteristics:

    1. They are published by government agencies, universities or professional organizations. See Natural Resources Agency Government Documents and Reports for additional information.
    2. The series has a distinctive name. Typical names include BulletinSpecial ReportSpecial Paper,Technical Report, and Technical Paper.
    3. Individual issues are consecutively numbered, e.g. Technical Paper No. 36.
    4. Each issue has a distinctive author and title.
    5. There is no regular publication schedule.

    A typical example is:

    Wheeler, W.E., R.C. Gatti, & G.A. Bartlett.(a) 1984. Duck Breeding, Ecology and Harvest Characteristics on Grand River Marsh Wildlife Area.(b) Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources(c) Technical Bulletin(d) No. 145(e).
    where a=individual author; b=individual title; c=series author; d=series title; e=series number

To Find Individual Papers: Use databases listed in A-Z Databases to find individual papers published in scientific journals, magazines and series. Databases typically can be searched by subject, taxonomic category, habitat, time period, chemical substance, geographic area or author. In addition the websites of many journal and magazine publishers contain searchable databases of articles published in their publications.

To Find Print and Fulltext Availability: See the Electronic Journals finder for specific holdings and available formats of journal, magazine and series titles available through WSU Libraries. Enter the title of the publication, not the article title. In addition some series are cataloged by individual author and title in the WSU Libraries Online Catalog

To Find Abbrevations of Scientific Publications: Many scientific journal and series titles are abbreviated in the literature. Journal Title Abbreviations lists both general abbreviation sources and more specific discipline sources in the sciences.

To Find Important Journals by Subject: See SCImago Journal & Country Rank and - Ranking and Mapping Scientific Knowledge. UlrichsWeb (database provided through WSU Libraries is the most reliable publication evaluation information currently available) - see: 

To Acquire Fulltext Copies of Papers Not Available through WSU Libraries: Use the Library's Interlibrary Loan Service that is linked within databases using the 360 button and on a separate site with blank forms. Turnaround time to have fulltext articles emailed to you is usually within 24 hours.

Conference Papers

Papers presented at national and international conferences, symposia, and workshops are another source of "primary" scientific information . For many conferences the presented papers are eventually published in a "proceedings" or "transactions" volume. Papers with no published proceedings may be refined and reworked for formal publication in a journal. Proceedings available in WSU Libraries are listed in the WSU Libraries Online Catalog under both author (generally the name of the conference, individual editor or sponsoring organization) and title.

Many discipline databases included in Articles and Databases index individual conference papers by subject, taxonomic, geographic, and author. 

Theses and Dissertations

The outcome of graduate study conducted at universities is commonly a master's thesis or doctoral dissertation. In addition to the formal thesis or dissertation, research results are often communicated in other "primary" literature formats, such as the journal paper.

See WorldCat Dissertations & Theses for how to find and acquire 1) WSU masters theses; and 2) theses and dissertations produced at other universities that are available in other libraries and on the Internet.

Scientific Monographs

Scientific monographs are book length works written by specialists for the benefit of other specialists. As defined by the National Research Council they attempt to "...collect, collate, analyze, integrate, and synthesize all relevant contributions to the archival literature of the scientific and engineering journals and to add original material as required". They are different from textbooks which are pedagogical works and scientific popularizations for the general public.

Monographs are listed in the WSU Libraries Catalog and in other library catalogs through the WorldCat Database:

Government Documents and Technical Reports

Scientists at federal and state government agencies conduct research that is sometimes published officially bythe government as a government document. Other research is published in the "open" scientific literature as journal articles and other publications.

WSU Libraries are an official "depository library" for federal and state government documents and annually receives approximately 6,000 government documents in either paper or other formats. In addition 80% of all recently published federal publications are available on the Internet.

Research projects conducted for government agencies are frequently published as technical reports. They are usually produced in response to a specific information need with research either 1) conducted "in-house" by state or federal research labs, or 2) contracted out to universities, consulting firms, research institutes, or private industry.

Progress and final reports typically are used directly by the sponsoring agency with limited distribution beyond the organization. As a result technical report literature is sometimes called "gray literature" because of its difficulty to identify and acquire.

The format of technical reports is more flexible in organization and tends to contain more of the scientific data collected. Research first reported in a technical report may be reworked and published in other "primary" literature formats.

The Government Information research guide contains further information on government documents and technical reports issued by federal and Kansas State agencies, including their organization in WSU Libraries and indexes to their content. The focus is on agencies responsible for managing and conducting research in natural resources.

Scientific Data

Scientific data are numerical quantities or other factual attributes derived from observation, experimentation or calculation. They are the raw material and the building block for scientific research. Through data analysis and interpretation new scientific information is generated.

The archiving of data collected and used in scientific research is important for future replication, repurposing based on new ideas or exploration of new analysis methodologies. Many funding agenices and scientific journals require authors of scientific papers to archive and share data utilized in their studies.

Data repositories archive and make data available to the scientific community. They may contain 1) data that has been collected as part of massive mission-oriented projects, e.g., atmospheric, hydrological, or oceanographic, or genomic; or 2) original data or data extracted from larger datasets that are associated with specifc published research studies.

Following are major directories of data repositories:

  • (United States Government) Browse or search for datasets available from US government executive agencies.
  • Data Files (Association of College and Research Libraries. Science and Technology Section) Lists federal, state and foreign goverment data repository directories.
  • DataCite (British Library, BioMed Central and Digital Curation Centre) Arranged alphabetically.
  • Global Change Master Directory (Goddard Space Flight Center) Browse by broad subject area or search by keyword.
  • Open Access Directory: Data Repositories (Graduate School of Library and Information Science, Simmons College) Arranged by broad subject.
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