Scientific literature

Scientific literature is published in journals, proceedings, books, and on web pages. The four media each have their own purpose: Books cover a particular subject in depth and attempt to provide links between different areas within it. Many scientists put their own research on a web page so that they can replace older results with more recent ones as they come in. Results presented at conferences are often reported in special proceedings. When a significant step in a research programme has been achieved, the results are presented as full papers in a journal.

Refereed literature

Fig.: All sources aren't equal.
Beware: All sources aren't equal! (Source: Randall Munroe, XKCD)

While research information presented on web pages can be very informative and up to date, there is no quality control: I could claim on my web page that I have undertaken an astronomical research project whose result shows clearly that the sun circles around the earth. Assessing the quality of the data and conclusions drawn is a matter of trust and reflection on the readers' part.

Research submitted to journals is subject to a review process. The thoroughness of the process depends on the journal, but certain minimum standards of quality control can be taken for granted. In practice, after submission of the manuscript by the author (or group of authors), the journal's editor sends the manuscript to two or three referees - other scientists working in the same area. These (ought to) check that the experimental procedure is described in sufficient detail to allow others to reproduce the results. They also review the rigour of the analysis and whether the conclusions drawn and models proposed are in fact conclusive. The referees then prepare reports for the journal editor recommending that the paper be accepted, rejected, or accepted subject to amendments they deem necessary. In the latter case, the editor refers these back to the authors who can then resubmit a revised version of their manuscript. The referees know whose manuscript they're reviewing, but the authors don't know who the referees are.

Researching refereed publications

Aberystwyth University, like most institutions, is a subscriber to the "Web of Knowledge (WoK)", an Internet-based data base of refereed literature across all subjects. Note that WoK does not contain the journal papers themselves but only bibliographic information (which journal, pages, author names and affiliation...) and the abstracts of the papers. You can search for author names or keywords, and you can limit your search to certain journals or years. Or any combination of the above.

Search example: Windmills

Fig.: Community wind turbine at CAT.

You can connect search terms by using the Boolean operators AND, OR, NOT. Always take notes of your search strategy: You may notice later that you accidentally excluded some your target papers. In the example below, offshore windfarms called "sea-based" rather than "offshore" would fall in this category. If you don't know the terminology of the field very well, you are likely to miss out on some target papers, and you may want to refine your search later.

To avoid having to wait for ages on the Internet, I sometimes find it easier to do a moderately general search, then have the whole output emailed as a text file and do the refining in a text editor. But here's the example (the numbers of hits may have increased since I worked out this example):

Getting your hands on the actual paper

Once you have identified the abstracts that let the corresponding paper appear worthwhile, you can get the actual paper (in this order):

  1. online through UWA's list of full-text online journals
  2. from one of UWA's libraries after looking it up on Primo
  3. from the National Library of Wales after looking it up on the NLW database
  4. using the Document Supply service. Document Supply is a bit pricey, but you can get a few requests for free. They can take a while to process, so they're no good the night before the deadline.

Finally, remember: Having the paper isn't sufficient - you've got to read it too!