Information Formats


figure, exhausted, with head on desk.  Above figure a bubble representing thought and many subjects/topics displayed


Primary and Secondary Sources of Information

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, 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.

Information in the sciences can be found in a variety of formats.  Depending upon the type of information you need, some formats will prove more useful than others.

  • books, e-books, reference materials
  • journals, annual reviews, letters to the editor, technical reports, preprints
  • government information, patents, standards, protocols
  • grey literature, conference proceedings, dissertations/theses
  • specimen types, taxonomies, datasets, maps

We'll take a few minutes to review some of the main formats so that you can begin to get an idea about which format may be the most helpful to your research task. 

Books, e-books, reference materials  

        Encyclopedia of Oceanic Sciences           Systems Biology book cover               Physics book cover



  • Background information and concept overviews to begin research
  • Historical perspective to ongoing research
  • Procedures and protocols for applied and laboratory science
  • Keywords for database searching


  • Overviews of topics and disciplines, histories of subjects, and established information in a field.


Conference Papers

Papers presented at national and international conferences, symposia, and workshops are a source of "primary" scientific information . For many conferences the presented papers are eventually published in a "proceedings" or "transactions" volume. Papers with no published proceedings may be refined and reworked for formal publication in a journal. Many discipline databases included in our SNAP online databases index individual conference papers by subject, taxonomic, geographic, and author. The Conference Papers Index and PapersFirst databases only index conference papers.

 The Journal of Neuroscience with an owl on the cover              JBC - The Journal of Biological Chemistry


  • Concise and focused subject information.
  • Timely research information and new trends/ideas.
  • Insight into new experimental procedures and methodologies.


  • New discoveries in a field


  • Often peer-reviewed, refereed and held to rigorous standards.
  • Intended for general types of scientists and engineers or discipline specific audiences.

To Find Journals Ranked by Impact: See Journals Ranked by Impact, SCImago Journal & Country Rank and - Ranking and Mapping Scientific Knowledge.

Scientific Monograms

Scientific monographs are book length works written by specialists for the benefit of other specialists. As defined by the National Research Council they attempt to "...collect, collate, analyze, integrate, and synthesize all relevant contributions to the archival literature of the scientific and engineering journals and to add original material as required". They are different from textbooks which are pedagogical works and scientific popularizations for the general public.

Government Documents and Publications

   Department of Health & Human Services logoUnited States Environmental Protection Agency logo


  • Government collected statistics and data in a wide range of subjects.
  • Standards, specifications, patents, and regulations for a variety of fields.
  • Government policy details and associated background information.
  • Scientific and technical reports on a wide range of topics.


  • Data and research results compiled by government scientists or their contractors in a variety of fields from chemistry to physics to biology and more.  Examples of data range from geophysical data and weather satellite data to animal and plant census data.


  • Published by various federal, state and local government departments, agencies, task forces, etc.
  • Intended for general audiences, discipline-specific scientists, engineers, researchers, and policy makers.

Research projects conducted for government agencies are frequently published as technical reports. They are usually produced in response to a specific information need with research either 1) conducted "in-house" by state or federal research labs, or 2) contracted out to universities, consulting firms, research institutes, or private industry.

Grey Literature

"Between the Extremes of Black and White" Chart showing spectrum of published journals

By its broadest definition, grey literature is a body of materials that cannot be found easily through conventional channels such as publishers. 


  • New/revolutionary/untested ideas
  • Some primary sources such as records, archives, filed notes, observations.
  • Data and information on focused/unique subjects, untapped ("lost") ideas, data, experiments, methodologies, designs, etc.

Can Include:

  • government research
  • non-profit reports
  • think tank assessments
  • reports from observations, investigations, and other primary resource materials.


  • Non-conventional literature that does not include normal scientific journals, books or popular publications.  Electronic and print formates not published for commercial reasons.  Not well catalogued and often difficult to locate.  Published by all levels of government, academic, business and industry.

Example:  Dissertations have important ideas and information but are often produced in small numbers and are not widely available.

Miscellaneous Sources

In addition to the above sources, additional miscellaneous formats can include:

  • physical examples of materials
  • specimen types
  • taxonomies
  • source bibliographies
  • maps
  • GIS data
  • databases
  • blogs, emails, listservs, and wikis

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):




Scientific Information Literacy Modules
Unit 1:  What is Science?
Unit 2:  Scientific Information
copyright 2011 Napa Valley College

updated June 14, 2011, by Nancy McEnery, Reference Librarian-Instructor