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College Writing 161: Writing in the Biological Sciences: Scientific literature

Guide to finding, reading, evaluating, saving and organizing different types of writing in the biological sciences.

Scientific communication

The range of formal and informal writing in the biological sciences encompasses:

  • Articles, letters/short communications, commentaries, editorials, opinion pieces and news published in scientific journals
  • Preprints of scientific articles posted to repositories
  • Conference presentations
  • Dissertations and theses
  • Reports from governmental or non-profit organizations
  • Articles published in industry/trade publications or newsletters
  • Articles published in newspapers or general circulation magazines and newsletters
  • Scholarly monographs and technical manuals
  • General interest books
  • Textbooks, handbooks and encyclopedias
  • Information shared on social media
  • Messages posted on interest-group boards or email lists

The structure of scientific literature

Publication Types

Primary literature

In the sciences, the primary literature:

  • presents or comments upon the first-hand results of research activities
  • often includes analyses of data collected in the field or the laboratory
  • is very current and highly specialized.

Examples of primary literature in the sciences include:

Grey Literature: Dissertations and theses, technical reports, conference presentations, and other documents are considered grey literature (or gray literature), defined by GreyNet as "multiple document types produced on all levels of government, academics, business, and [other] organization[s] in electronic and print formats. . .where publishing is not the primary activity of the producing body." Grey literature may have editorial or committee oversight, but does not necessarily undergo the process of peer review. Nonetheless, it may have significant scientific value.

Secondary literature

The secondary literature is a good place to start when you are investigating a new topic, because secondary sources:

  • summarize and synthesize the primary literature
  • are both broader and less current than the primary literature
  • are useful for getting an overview of a research area
  • are useful for finding citations to more information on a topic.

Examples of secondary literature in the sciences include:

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

Tertiary literature

The tertiary literature:

  • deals with broad, discipline-level topics in the sciences (like biochemistry or evolution)
  • is a useful starting point for background information on a research topic
  • reports well-established facts in the scientific literature
  • is often not as thoroughly referenced as primary or secondary literature

Examples of tertiary literature in the sciences include:

  • encyclopedias
  • textbooks
  • handbooks

For more help

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Elliott Smith
Bioscience, Natural Resources &
Public Health Library