BIO 190—Scientific Communication I

Introduction to the literature of biology

Scientists are often depicted as lone eccentrics working in hidden laboratories, but science is a collective activity, and even eccentrics base their lonely work on the studies of others. It is often said that “If it isn’t published, it’s not science.” While this isn’t always technically true, it points up the absolute importance of scientists communicating their work.

As a beginner in the activities of scientists, you will find yourself reading the work of other scientists, but as you progress, you will do more and more communicating of your own. At first it may be essay exams, term papers, and lab writeups. If you choose a career in science you will eventually be called upon to present the science you do, as oral or written reports, or in the form of scientific publications.

To work effectively with the literature of biology or any other science, you need to understand how it’s “put together”. It can be categorized by the physical medium: books, journal articles, web pages, etc., but it can also be arranged into three levels:

Primary Literature

This is the most important literature of science. The primary literature reports the results of experiments, observations, and other scientific investigation. Scientific discoveries first “exist” when they are presented in the primary literature, and all the other literature of science is based on it.

In modern biology, most primary literature is published as articles in journals, and many journals exist for the sole purpose of publishing primary literature. But not all articles in journals are primary literature (a good rule-of-thumb is that if an article has a “Materials and Methods” section, it is primary literature).

Occasionally even now, and more often in the past, primary literature was published in books. That has fallen out of favor in recent years, because it takes much longer for books to get published than journal articles, and because most scientists don’t wait until they have a book’s worth of discovery before they publish.

Another important part of the primary literature, but one that is often overlooked because it is so hard to deal with bibliographically, is presentations (“papers”) and posters given at scientific meetings. From a bibliographic standpoint, these often cease to exist as anything more than titles or abstracts after the meeting is over, but they can often have profound effects on the scientists that witness them.

Publication of primary literature on the World Wide Web is becoming the norm in some sciences, such as certain areas of physics, but it is still unusual in biology. A number of print journals are beginning to publish Web counterparts, though, and this will undoubtedly become more important in the future.

Secondary Literature

Many scientists lump all literature that is not primary into this category, but we’ll use it in this course to mean literature which is about the primary literature. At first it might seem strange to write about writing, but if you’ve ever read an article in the primary literature in a field with which you are not familiar, you’d probably be glad to have someone tell you what it means.

The commonest kind of secondary literature is the review article. An author of a review article reads all the primary literature about a subject that she can lay her hands on, along with any other review articles on the subject, and synthesizes all of that into a single article or book. Perhaps that sounds like a “glorified term paper”. In fact, a term paper (at least a good one) is a simplified version of a review article. The primary literature is the basis of science, but it is the secondary literature that does the bulk of the work of transmitting information. A well-written and thoroughly-researched review article is a valuable thing indeed.

Review articles are ordinarily published in journals, but most scientific books (not including textbooks) are also effectively secondary literature. At scientific meetings, symposium talks, which are generally longer than contributed papers and which summarize a field, are secondary literature. Many of the informative and authoritative web sites about biology are also secondary literature.

Tertiary Literature

Tertiary literature is written about the secondary literature. It includes articles in the popular press: magazines, such as Scientific American or Newsweek, newspapers, and popular books, as well as the bulk of scientific web sites and undergraduate textbooks. The tertiary literature can further summarize and synthesize the information in the secondary literature, or it can distort it and fill it with inaccuracies.

Judging Quality

Of course, any scientific literature can be inaccurate, but the ways to discover inaccuracy differ at the different levels. At all levels, individual authors establish reputations for integrity. Sometimes these reputations are based on solid evidence, and sometimes on authoritarian pronouncements and the support of cronies. That’s why it is necessary to have other means of evaluation.

The tertiary literature can be evaluated by the accuracy with which it depicts the secondary literature. If you are familiar with some of the secondary literature that backs up an article, and the article does a fair job of recounting it, you can expect the same accuracy for the part you aren’t familiar with. Likewise, the secondary literature can be judged by the accuracy with which it deals with the primary literature.

There is another method that is useful for the secondary literature and that is the main way to evaluate the primary literature: logical consistency. A basic premise of science is that different studies are looking at different parts of the same story. Data and conclusions don’t always fit--that’s how science advances. But sometimes they don’t fit because the investigator was asking the wrong questions, or using the wrong tools, or using the right tools without skill.

The German physicist Max Planck once said of a publication that it wasn’t good enough to be wrong. A useful skill for scientists is the ability to distinguish unsound conclusions, the mark of “merely wrong” science, from unsound hypotheses, unsound methodology, and ignorance of the previous body of knowledge, all marks of bad science.

The final way to evaluate the primary literature, but a method that is rarely used, is to repeat the experiments. Almost all scientific study is judged on its ability to be repeated, but the current culture of science focuses mainly on new results. Experiments are ordinarily repeated only when (a) doubt is cast on them in some other way, and (b) they are judged to be “significant”.

How is scientific literature published?

  • Refereed journals - As in most publications, the contents are selected and often modified by an editor, but the editor is advised by referees, scientists in the same field as the author. These individuals, also called peer reviewers (hence, peer-reviewed journal) are sent copies of the manuscript, and they judge it on its scientific accuracy as well as its style. Referees may recommend that a manuscript be published with or without changes, or that it not be published. Authors ordinarily submit their manuscripts to these journals, rather than the journals soliciting the manuscripts from the authors. Refereed journals are generally considered to be the highest quality of scientific literature. Both primary and secondary literature are published in refereed journals.
  • Non-refereed scientific publications - An editor or editorial board has sole discretion over what is published. The editorial board most often consists of scientists, who are able to judge the quality of the work, but no outside reviewers are used. Sometimes authors submit manuscripts, but often manuscripts are solicited, especially for publications about a specific topic. Most scientific books fit in this category, and there are also many journals, both obscure and well-respected, that are not refereed. As in refereed journals, both primary and secondary literature are published. Also, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that the distinction between refereed and non-refereed publications is sometimes blurred.
  • Publications for a popular audience - These are intended either for nonscientists or for scientists reading outside their fields. Their contents are determined by an editor or editorial board that may or may not include scientists. The articles may be written by the same scientists that write for refereed and non-refereed journals, but there are also articles by “science writers”, scientists or nonscientists who make a career of writing about science. Although popular publications often publish tertiary literature, both secondary and occasional primary literature find their way into these sources.
  • Self-publication - Throughout history, scientists have had to resort to self-publication for work that could not be published otherwise, and in some periods, self-publication was common. With the advent of the World Wide Web, self-publication has become increasingly common and important, both because it provides easy access to types of information that were difficult to obtain in the past, and because the sheer volume has exacerbated an “information glut”, making it more difficult to find needed data. Self-published works can be primary, secondary, or tertiary literature.
Serials, periodicals, journals, magazines: Sorting it out

Serial publications are published repeatedly, in a series (unlike a book, which is only published once). Serials can be issued at irregular intervals, but if they are published regularly, they are called periodicals. A periodical might be published yearly, quarterly, monthly, weekly, daily, or at any other regular interval.

Journals, magazines, and newspapers are all examples of periodicals. Newspapers are generally large-format, on inexpensive paper, and not bound. There is really no effective difference between journals and magazines, but the term “journal” has come to refer to a periodical with scholarly content, whereas a magazine is expected to have more popular content. But note that the journal Science is often called “Science magazine”.

Citation: Clark, Curtis. 2001. BIO 190 - Introduction to the literature of biology. California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, /~jcclark/classes/bio190/biolit.html.


These are official class materials of BIO 190 as taught at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, by Curtis Clark. They are subject to change without notice to anyone but students currently enrolled in the class.

Summer Quarter, 2001
© 2001 by Curtis Clark