In order to find specific information, you need to understand the research publication process in order to direct your search. There are three basic groups of researchers: Government, Academic, and Industry. These three groups may blend. For example, academic researchers may seek funding for their research from government or industry. These factors will influence the timing and sources of publications.
1. The Question: All research starts with a question worth answering. Often the question is based upon previous research.
2. Funding: After researchers come up with an idea, many will seek grants to financially support their research. Part of the grant seeking process includes writing about the proposed research. These grant proposals may or may not be available to the public.
3. Research Progress Reports: Scientists conduct the research. If they are supported by a government grant, they may be required to submit progress reports. These reports may be available as government document open-file reports or, in the USA, through NTIS.
4. Preliminary Results: When preliminary results are available, the researchers may report the results at conferences. These results are then published in the conference proceedings, but often only as abstracts. Research can be very competitive, with the greatest benefits going to the researchers who publish on the subject first, therefore there is pressure to publish as soon as possible to "claim territory". On the other hand, researchers working in industry may not publish results because they may not want competitors to have access to the information. This type of information is labeled "proprietary".
5. Publication of Results: When the research is completed, a paper is written summarizing and discussing the procedures, results, and implications. This paper is then submitted to a journal. Most academic researchers prefer to submit to a journal that is "refereed". This means a group of peers read and evaluate the paper to determine if it merits publication. Sometimes the paper is returned for revisions. After submission to a journal, it may take from months to a year before it is accepted.
If the first journal rejects the paper, it is then submitted to another. Each journal requires a particular format, or style, therefore the paper must be rewritten for each subsequent submission.
Before papers are submitted to journals, progress and results are sometimes presented at professional meetings. Some information will appear in the abstracts of such meetings. In some cases, the complete papers are published in transactions or proceedings of the meetings. In other cases, papers may be published in society special publications or memoirs.
6. Waiting for Publication: After the paper is accepted for publication in a journal there is usually a waiting period before it actually appears in print. There is a huge volume of papers submitted for publication, and only a finite amount of space in journals. With the initiation of fully electronic journals, this factor may change. It is sometimes possible to get a preprint of an article, and some authors make their results available via the Web. Sometimes a publication is cited in another paper before it has actually been published (e.g. "in press"). In rare cases, the cited paper may never actually be published.
7. Secondary Literature: After enough research on the subject has been published, and after the research has passed the scrutiny of the scientific community over a period of time, the information may then be included in monographs such as textbooks. By the time information has been incorporated into textbooks, the research may be a number of years old. If you want current information, consult journals and conference proceedings. These are known as primary sources. If you want information that has weathered the tests of time, consult textbooks, handbooks, and encyclopedias.
When seeking information, consider who might have published this type of information, and in what phase of the publication process. These ideas will help in your selection of reference search tools, such as online indexes.
Your subject librarian will be glad to direct you to the best resources for finding your needed information.
Posted with permission 02/28/02
Originally published NDSU June 2, 2000