The Literature of Biology
and the raw material for future research - A.F. Spilhaus
The biological literature is part of the larger scientific literature. This literature represents a permanent record of the collective achievements of the scientific community and is the principal medium for communicating the results of scientific research. This scientific knowledge base is composed of the individual "end products" of scientific research and continues to grow as new research builds on earlier research. This new research may add to, substantiate, modify, refine or refute existing knowledge. Research and discovery in the laboratory or field is dependent on existing knowledge and literature; and discovery is only valuable when it becomes part of the literature and the body of scientific knowledge.
Scientific literature is divided into two basic categories - "primary" and "secondary". Publications that report the results of original scientific research constitute the "primary" literature and include journal papers, conference papers, monographic series, technical reports, and theses and dissertations. The "primary" literature is eventually compacted into "secondary" sources which synthesize and condense what is known on specific topics. These include reviews, monographs, textbooks, treatises, handbooks, and manuals.
Useful strategies for searching the scientific knowledge base are found in Searching the Scientific Literature.
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):
Biology Journals and Magazines
Journals. The research paper published in a scientific journal represents the most important "primary" source of information. Over 80% of biological research is communicated in this format. The first scientific journal was established in 1665 and today there are over 2,800 scholarly journals in biology. For high impact journals in biology see Journals Ranked by Impact, Eigenfactor.org: Ranking and Mapping Scientific Knowledge and SCImago Journal & Country Rank.
Literature databases listed in Articles and Databases: Biology/Botany/Zoology can be used to find individual research papers by author, subject, taxonomic category, habitat type, life stage, chemical compound, or geographic area. Most HSU databases include links from each record to matching records in the Journal and Newspaper Finder. If not available locally copies can be requested through the Library's efficient Interlibrary Loan Service.
Databases and cited literature typically abbreviate journal titles. To assist you in deciphering abbreviations the following sources are available to help you find complete titles:
- Journal Title Abbreviations (HSU Library)
- Abbreviation lists associated with databases listed in Articles and Databases: Biology/Botany/Zoology
- Biological Journals and Abbreviations (Hough & Patton) Listed in abbreviations order. Gives full title and link to ejournal homepage.
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. Check the Journal and Newspaper Finder for magazines available in the HSU Library.
Longer contributions resulting from scientific research are sometimes published in this format. Monographic series typically have the following characteristics:
- They are published by government agencies, major universities or professional organizations.
- Individual issues are collectively published in a continuing series which has a distinctive name. Typical names include Bulletin, Special Report, Special Paper, Technical Report, and Technical Paper.
- Individual issues in the series are consecutively numbered, e.g. Technical Paper No. 36.
- Each issue has a distinctive author and title.
- There is no regular publication schedule in contrast to a journal.
- Individual issues contain the completed results of a single research project.
- Individual issues range from several pages to several hundred pages.
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 locate monographic series in the HSU Library you need to consult the following two sources:
- For federal and California State agency series use the catalogs and indexes listed in Natural Resources Agency Government Documents and Reports.
- For all other monographic series use the HSU Catalog or Journal and Newspaper Finder. The key is to look for the series of which an individual issue is a part. You must look under either the series title (Technical Bulletin in the above example) or the sponsoring organization (Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources in the above example). In the above example there is no listing under the author "Wheeler..."" or the title "Duck Breeding..." since these are the author and title of the individual issue. HSU Library Catalog will note each number held by the Library in a particular series, e.g., #1-25, 26-30, 35-.
As with individual journal papers databases listed in Articles and Databases: Biology/Botany/Zoology also can be used to identify research published in this format.
Papers presented at national and international conferences, symposia, and workshops are the second most common source for communicating biological research. For many of these meetings the presented papers are eventually published in a "proceedings" or "transactions" volume or made available on the Internet. Those available in the HSU Library are listed in the HSU Library Catalog under author (generally the name of the conference, individual editor or sponsoring organization) and title.
Subject, taxonomic, geographic, and author access to individual conference papers is provided by databases listed in Articles and Databases: Biology/Botany/Zoology.
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 Theses and Dissertations for how to find and acquire 1) HSU masters theses; and 2) theses and dissertations produced at other universities that are available in other libraries and on the Internet.
Monographs generally are not part of the "primary" literature of biology or science in general, but rather are "secondary" sources of information. They may be either scholarly contributions or popularizations on specific topics. Through scholarly monographs the "primary" literature on specific topics is condensed, summarized or reviewed. Most include references back to the "primary" literature. They may take the format of textbooks, treatises, taxonomic works, or a multitude of reference works, such as encyclopedias or handbooks. Monographs are listed in the HSU Library Catalog. For guidance in use of HSU Library Catalog see Biological Searching in Library Catalogs.
See Natural Resources Agency Government Documents and Reports for an introduction to locating government documents and technical reports.