Einstein's formula E=MC squared written on whiteboard

Posted first (and graciously shared by!) Napa Valley College Library

Research in the sciences generally involves recognizing a scientific problem to be solved, setting up an experiment designed to yield useful data, and interpreting the data in the context of other scientific knowledge. Researchers use library resources to:

  • keep up with current thinking in the field so they can identify questions worth asking.
  • review what is known about a given phenomenon so they can place new knowledge in context.
  • locate specific information they need to successfully carry out an experiment or a project.

The massive volume of scientific literature being produced can be daunting at first. However, a number of resources are available to help you find what is relevant to your research. Students planning to search for scientific materials should be prepared to:

  • choose search terms carefully so that they match those used by the sources.
  • work from the most recent publications to earlier ones, sorting out schools of thought and lines of inquiry.
  • know when to stop, when they have uncovered a selection of the most important and relevant research for their topic.

Sharing Scientific Information – Where It All Began

Typically, instructors require that students use scholarly research articles for their assignments.  To understand why scholarly research articles are so important in the sciences, it helps to know how scientific information is shared by researchers.  The invention of the scientific journal one of the most significant steps in the history of science. Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society, and his daughter Dr Emily Nurse discuss the Philosophical Transactions, the world’s oldest surviving science journal as it turns 350 years old. Take a look at this excellent video produced by the Royal Society commemorating its publication:

The Scientific Information Cycle

The advancement of science depends on the sharing of data, observations, results and interpretations.  This communication can take the form of talking or emailing with colleagues and attending or presenting at professional meetings.  However, to reach the widest possible audience, scientists publish in scientific journals.

The following diagram illustrates the cycle of scientific information.  As information moves through this process, it becomes increasingly formalized.  As information is published, it is read and informs the future work of scientists.

The Scientific Publishing Cycle:  write article, submit, reviewed, changes recommended, revise, publish, article gets indexed

What is Peer Review?

A Scientist writes an article and submits it to a journal.  The journal editor submits the paper to ther scientists for anonymous review of quality and originality.  The reviewers consider the following:

Was the work done properly?  
Is the discovery original?
Is the subject matter appropriate for this journal?
Is the paper well written enough for other scientisits to understand it?

The editor uses the reviewer’s comments and recommendations to accept the paper, reject it, or require revisions.  The journal article is typically considered the document of record of the author’s research.  Turnaround time is typically 6 to 12 months.

Primary Research:  Finding Science Articles

Oftentimes your instructor will ask you to locate primary research articles for your papers.  Primary, also known as “original” research articles are those written by the people who actually conducted the experiment. 

How Has the Internet Changed How Scientific Information Is Shared?


Before the advent of the Internet, scientists would typically only publish their work as research articles in standard peer-reviewed journals.  In this process, articles are often returned to researchers with a list of corrections that must be made prior to publication.  Because it can take up to a year or more from submission to publication, authors within different scientific communities have for some time discussed their research by exchanging articles (preprints) amongst themselves before formal publication.

A researcher maydecide to distribute the pre-published copy of the article to colleagues — usually to establish his or her credit for the work prior to publication.  Some authors choose to do this by posting articles to their own web site.  The alternative, which is becoming increasingly popular, is to submit articles to “preprint servers” — permanent and freely available databases on the Internet.  This process does not involve any peer reviews (a preprint is defined as an unreviewed manuscript that has been publicly distributed or posted on servers that are generally available on the Web). Preprint servers, or databases, have developed mostly along discipline lines such as:

arXive.org is a fully automated electronic archive and distribution server for research papers in the fields of physics, mathematics, non-linear science and computer science.  It is owned and operated by Cornell University, a private not-for-profit educational institution.  It is host to more than 300,000 preprints with just under 3,000 new preprints being submitted every month.   

copyright 2018 Napa Valley College

updated March 2018, by Nancy McEnery, Reference Librarian-Instructor