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Guide to Science Information Resources

Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Literature

World of Publications and Literature

Many first perceive literature to be defined as creative works like fiction or or collections of poetry.  In scholarly and professional terms, literature is also defined as works available or published about a particular concept.  It is like a world of many types of publications and information!  The literature is commonly found in an index and database search, and used as references cited in a research publication.  See below for examples and explanations.

Professional literature falls under 3 categories, primary, secondary, and tertiary.  Within those categories are various types of publications.  See the table for their definitions, attributes and examples:

  Definition Attributes Types of Publications Example
Primary Literature Direct documentation or interaction with an event or occurrence.

Results of original research;

Peer reviewed

  • Peer-reviewed journal articles
  • Published experimental, quasi-experimental, mixed method, or qualitative research
  • Theses & dissertations
  • Laws & legislation
  • Conference reports or proceedings
  • Interviews & transcripts
  • Raw data (directly collected and gleaned from an experiment or study)
Beer, K., Kolbe, E., Kahana, N.B., Yayon, N., Weiss, R., Menegazzi, P., Bloch, G., & Helfrich-Forster (2018).  Pigment-Dispersing Factor-expressing neurons convey circadian information in the honey bee brain.  Open Biology, 8(1).  DOI: 10.1098/rsob.170224 
Secondary Literature Based on an indirect interaction with an event or information. Summarizes, uses, discusses, or comments on information from primary sources.
  • Textbooks
  • Trade journals
  • Books (not the result of original research)
  • Reviews: systematic, literature
  • Meta-analyses
  • Opinion pieces
  • Secondary data
Lane, D. (2003).  Introduction to statistics [eBook edition].  Rice University.
Tertiary Literature Also based on an indirect interaction with an event or information.  Utilizes and distills information from both primary and secondary sources.
  • Handbooks
  • Manuals
  • Dictionaries
  • Encyclopedias
  • Indexes and abstracts
National Institute of Standards and Technology (2018).  NIST chemistry webbook

Image source:  Permission by Unsplash license.

Common Scientific Publications

Original Article

Original Article:  Provides new information based on original research, and presents a research topic, its background, methodology used, results, conclusion and discussion of results.  These usually appear in scholarly journals.

Garb, J.E., Ayoub, N.A., & Hayashi, C.Y. (2010).  Untangling spider silk evolution with spidroin terminal domains.  BMC Evolutionary Biology, 10(243).  DOI: 10.1186/1471-2148-10-243


Dissertation:  a document on a scholarly or research topic done by a student to fulfill the requirements of attaining an advanced degree (usually masters or doctoral-level).  Scholars often use these to examine their works cited.  See Proquest Dissertations & Theses Global for examples (FAU log-in required).

Pursell, G.R. (2009).  Adolescent conflict with parents and friends: The role of negative affect and resolution strategy in predicting relationship impact [Doctoral dissertation, Florida Atlantic University].  Florida Atlantic University Libraries Institutional Repository,   


Case Report

Case report:  a description of a single case or situation with unique features.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (1981, June 5).  Pneumocystis pneumonia --- Los Angeles.  MMWR: Morbility and Mortality Weekly Report   

Case Report


Review:  a detailed study or overview of developments within a specific topic.  Many articles and studies may be referred to in a review.

Li, Y, Lawley, M.A., Siscovick, D.S., Donglan, Z., & Pagan, J.A. (2016).  Agent-based modeling of chronic diseases: A narrative review and future research directions.  Preventing Chronic Disease, 13(E69).  DOI:  10.5888/pcd13.150561



Book:  an authoritative work on a topic within a field; often presents basic information and theories which are the results of previous research.

Langlois, A. (2013).  Negotiating bioethics: The governance of UNESCO's Bioethics Programme [eBook edition].  Routledge.


Government Document

Government document:  a publication or report of a government agency of any level.  These publications may include research, committee or agency reports, regulations, laws and statutes, and data.

United States Senate (2010).  The shark conservation act of 2009.  Senate Report 111-124.  U.S. Government Printing Office.

Government Document

Conference Paper or Proceeding

Conference paper or proceeding:  a paper presented at a conference, meeting, or symposium of a professional, scholarly organization.  Many researchers use conferences to solicit feedback on their work from others within their field, and then use the feedback for updates, refinements, or considerations for their research topic.

Harshman, N.L. (2016).  Five is more: Comments on symmetry, integrability, and solvability for a few particles in a one-dimensional trap.  Paper presented at the 21st International Conference on Few-Body Problems in Physics, Chicago, IL.  DOI:


Conference Paper

Trade Journal or Article

Trade journal or article:  practical information, news, or summaries of developments within a field.  Trade journals or generally do not focus on publishing original research like a scholarly or peer-reviewed journal.

See an example below.

Segall, G. (2021, November 10).  Beech leaf disease is ravaging North American trees.  Science.  DOI: 10.1126/science.acx9617

Trade Journal


Pre-print:  an article that has undergone the peer-review process and been accepted to a journal but not yet published.  

Another type of pre-print is a manuscript of an article that has not yet been accepted to a publication but made available for comment and feedback.  While this type of pre-print has not yet undergone peer review, it provides an opportunity for feedback and information exchange.

Kumar, S., Rosnes, E., & Graell i Amat, A. (2016, May 26).  Secure repairable fountain codes.  IEEE Communications Letters.  Advance online publication.


Other Types of Publications

A reference work is a collection of general facts within a field.  These can be used to find standards, measurements, or the general background of a theory.  Many types of reference works exist, but these are ones more commonly used in the sciences.

  1. Handbook: a resource that summarizes major topics or processes within a field.  These often provide tables with equations, functions, algorithms, and other established measurements or methods.  See Knovel Critical Tables (FAU log-in required).
  2. Standard:  a document with agreed-upon technical specifications or other criteria with the intention of being used as rules, guidelines, or definitions of characteristics to ensure that materials, products, processes, or services are fit for their purpose (International Organization for Standardization, n.d.).  A standard is established by a professional organization to provide a baseline of acceptable quality. See Engineers Edge list and description of standards from ANSI, ASTM, and others.
  3. Encyclopedia: a collection of summaries on selected key concepts within a field.  Scholars often use one as an initial resource to learn about an unfamiliar topic. See Van Nostrand's Scientific Encyclopedia (FAU log-in required).

International Standard Organization (n.d).  Standards 

Certain scientific fields communicate their findings using other types of publications:

  1. Technical note:  a description of new technology and recent innovations.
  2. Technical report:  an account of work done on a research project; often used for internal documentation within a company or institution.
  3. Patent:  a public notice of an invention filed with a governmental patent agency.  A patent gives the inventor exclusive rights to his or her creation for a certain amount of time.  A patent document often provides technical information on a given work or form of technology.  It does not undergo the peer review process, but rather is a legal document.

Gray (or grey) literature generally consists of publications that are not distributed through scholarly or commercial channels such as professional journals.  Types of gray literature may include:

  • Trade reports
  • Government publications
  • Conference proceedings
  • Company research or "white papers"

Some definitions of gray literature include publications such as blogs, statistical reports, and working papers.  

The purpose of gray literature varies and depends on the setting in which it is published and distributed.  In corporations or organizations, gray literature may be used to distribute new information, communicate for internal purposes, or to document activities.  One example is State Licensed Substance Abuse Treatment Programs in Philadelphia a report of The Pew Charitable Trust's study on medical-assisted treatment (MAT) and opioid-related deaths.  For academic contexts, gray literature may be a forum for presenting ideas that may be emerging or do not yet have wide interest. 

Gray literature should be considered in any literature review in order have a broader view of what is discussed and researched on a particular topic.

The following document types are often retrieved in a database search.  These are generally known as "front material."  Although they do not communicate original research or generate new knowledge, their role is to provide an arena for commentary and discussion within a field:

  1. Commentary an expert's response to a study based on his or her knowledge or experience to it.
  2. Editorial a review or critique of articles within the featured issue of a journal, a brief discussion of a topic, or a notice of recent developments within a field.
  3. Letters to the Editor also known as correspondence.  These are usually written in response to content featured in a journal.  They may be used to generate new ideas.

Other types of these documents include opinion pieces, news, and obituaries.

Notices from Publishers

Errata is a notice of a production error for a published work.  A corrigendum is the same except it notes an error made by an author.

An errata and a corrigendum are issued by a publisher and provide corrections.  Please note if a publication of interest has one in order to get its most updated or correct information.

See the following examples:

1.  (Figure 1) Erratum to "Positron emission tomography-directed therapy for patients with limited-stage diffuse large B-cell lymphoma," Journal of Clinical Oncology, 2020.

2.  (Figure 2) Corrigendum to "Shock-synthesized quasicrystals," by Peter Nemeth, IUCrJ 8(2), 2020.

Figure 1:

Errata Example

Figure 2:

Corrigendum Example

An expression or statement of concern is issued by the editorial board of a publication regarding a particular work.  It indicates the possibility that a work may be unreliable, or its intellectual merits are highly subject to debate.  A statement of concern may be issued for one or a combination of the following reasons:

  • A reader, editor, or multiple people raised concerns that went beyond normal differences of opinion or intellectual disagreements.
  • An author of a work is being investigated for misconduct or unethical behavior related to their published work.
  • The result of such an investigation is found to be inconclusive.

This statement does not indicate that actual misconduct or unethical behavior occurred, nor provides notice of a finding or final judgment.  Instead, it is an editorial boards' caution to readers that a work may be questionable, and allows a reader to make their own conclusion.

In this example, the editors of Frontiers in Public Health issued a statement of concern for the 2014 article, Questioning the HIV-AIDS hypothesis: 30 years of dissent, by Patricia Goodson.  Such statements do not always lead to a retraction or withdrawal of a publication, but in this example, the editorial board issued one for the original article 4 years later.

Statement of Concern

Source:  Frontiers Editorial Office (2015, February 13).  Publisher statement on "Questioning the HIV-AIDS hypothesis: 30 years of dissent."  Frontiers in Public Health, 3:37.

A retraction is a statement that indicates a published work had been withdrawn from a publication, with reasons for the decision.  See the Research Guide, What is a retraction?, for an explanation with examples.

More Information

Last updated on May 10, 2024 3:06 PM