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Types of Literature Sources

There are many types of sources that make up the chemical sciences literature. Each type of source has a unique role in knowledge creation and sharing. Below are some definitions to familiarize yourself with the types of sources you might find during your research. Click on each entry to learn more.


Primary Sources

Original accounts of scientific research. These sources are how scientists communicate their findings to the scientific community. 

Research articles are typically published in academic journals and have most likely been through a peer-review process. They function as primary reports of research: scientists publish papers to share the results of their work. The language in articles is usually highly technical and assumes the reader is experienced in the field.
Preprints are early versions of research articles which have not yet been peer-reviewed. Scientists may choose to disseminate their research as preprints before submitting their work to an academic journal. Preprints may present cutting edge research, but should be read critically because they have not yet been reviewed by other experts.
Proceedings papers are usually works in progress that are presented as lectures or posters at academic conferences. Depending on the conference organization, proceedings are sometimes peer-reviewed, but not always. It is common for a conference proceeding to be later published as a full research article.
Dissertations and theses are detailed accounts of research by graduate students at the end of their degrees. These documents are reviewed by a committee of university faculty before a degree is awarded. In many fields, the chapters will be also published as a journal article in a more concise form.
A patent for an invention grants intellectual property rights to the inventor. In order to obtain a patent, scientists must file technical information about the new invention, which is publicly disclosed for everyone to read. Patents are primarily legal documents, rather than information-sharing documents.

Secondary Sources

Sources that analyze, evaluate, interpret, or otherwise discuss information originally presented elsewhere.

A review article is a peer-reviewed report which analyzes a body of research articles. They are usually narrow in focus and have extensive bibliographies. Review articles examine trends, replication of results, and future directions of the field. While reviews are written for a technical audience, they can be helpful for readers who are new to the subject because they condense a lot of previous research into one document.
There is a wide variety of chemical sciences books, ranging in subject scope and reader expertise level. Scholarly books are useful for learning the foundations of the field because they often include a lot of detail that is omitted from research articles.

Tertiary Sources

Complied works that list, index, or organize primary and secondary resources for reference. These types of sources are not usually credited to any particular author.

Databases are indexes of thousands of scholarly journals and other sources. Databases tag articles with keywords and data to make them searchable. They include powerful filtering tools so that you can refine your search results and locate sources of interest. Databases typically only index journal articles, meaning that the full text of the paper itself is located in the journal and not the database.
Encyclopedias and dictionaries are organized compilations of information that are usually broad in scope and written by a large number of authors. These resources are a good place to look up quick facts, key concepts, and unfamiliar definitions of terms.
Compound property data are first reported in the primary literature. Later, book editors and database providers compile data into tables and charts for easy reference. Many of these resources are now digital and include molecular structure search capabilities.

Science Information Life Cycle

How do these different types of sources fit together? The ways in which scientific information is shared changes over time in the information life cycle. Click through the cards below to learn more about how science information is created, shared, and built upon within the scholarly community.

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