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Scientific Literature: What It Is and How to Get It

The collective record of science is preserved in the literature.  The literature informs scientists about what has already been done, and gives them the foundation and ideas to build on.  No research happens in an information vacuum.  Scientists consume and create the literature simultaneously.

research cycle

Discovery Tools

To find out what has been published, you use an index database, search engine, or library catalog.  (The ones marked with the UT icon require you to be on campus to use them.)


Publications

Publications take many forms (journals, magazines, books, conferences, etc.) and formats (digital or printed).  In most of the sciences, journals are by far the most important.  Not all information is created equal.  Most scholarly and scientific literature is peer-reviewed, meaning experts have assessed a paper before it is accepted for publication.  Magazines, newspapers, and popular material are not considered scholarly and should be used with caution.  It’s up to you the reader to look at everything you find critically and decide how much you should trust it.

Format of publication (i.e., digital or paper) doesn’t matter so much:  a journal or book accessed on the web is the same thing as that journal or book on a library shelf.  It’s just a matter of convenience and access.  Today most journals are available online to students and researchers at institutions and companies that can afford to subscribe to them.  (No, most of them are NOT free!)

Are Articles Hard to Read?

Articles in scientific journals are written by and for experts, not for beginning students or the general public. Since the authors assume their readers have some advanced knowledge on the subject, reading and understanding these articles can be a bit of a challenge at first when you don't have that expertise. But with a little practice you'll soon learn how to intelligently scan an article and extract the information you need. You don't necessarily have to read it start to finish, and you don't need to understand every little detail. Experienced scientists skip around:  they might scan the Experimental and Results sections first, and if those are interesting move on to the conclusions and introduction. 

For more tips check out this guide from the Royal Society of Chemistry:

Chemistry Librarian

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David Flaxbart
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University of Texas Libraries
512-495-4602

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