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Medical Sciences: Finding literature for assignments: 1. What information do I need?

Online tutorial introducing you to the skills and techniques needed for effective library research

As a first step, think about your research topic or assignment task and consider what sort of information/materials might be useful in helping you to develop your knowledge in this area.

You are likely to use a combination of different types of resources in order to fully explore your topic. 

It is essential to make a plan before you jump in and start searching; if you can pinpoint the sort of information you require, you can target your searching in the appropriate place and save yourself time.


Explore the information below on different categories of information and the different types of research materials you may come across in your subject. 

Information Sources: categories

1. Primary Sources

These are first hand accounts or records of research activity as they happened or were created, without any subsequent interpretation or commentary.

Examples include:  

  • Research articles covering experiments or studies
  • Theses and dissertations focusing on original research
  • Conference papers

Sources: The BMJ, Lancet, Nature, university research repositories

2. Secondary Sources

These provide interpretation, commentary or analysis of other sources. They are typically written after the event or activity being discussed, and are not based on direct observation of involvement.

Examples include: 

  • Literature reviews
  • Systematic reviews
  • Guidelines and position statements

Sources: NICE Evidence, MEDLINE/PubMed, CINAHL, Web of Science

3. Tertiary Sources

Organisation, categorisation, index or collection of primary and secondary sources. These sources typically list or collate other sources, rather than adding additional commentary or observations.

Examples include: 

  • Textbooks, books and journal articles that do not present new research
  • Dictionaries & encyclopedias
  • Handbooks

Sources: Oxford Handbooks, Medical Sciences, Kumar & Clark's clinical medicine

Medical Sciences research resources and materials

Books, such as textbooks, are good for providing an overview of a topic. They undergo an editorial process and are usually written by experts in the subject or professional authors. They contain reference lists or bibliographies so that you can broaden your research by following up leads to related publications.

Many books at the University are available in digital format as e-books. 

Books take time to produce, so may not always contain the most up to date information. It is important to check you are using the most up to date edition of a book.

Journals can provide you with up to date discussion of research topics as they are published more quickly and regularly than books e.g. weekly, monthly, quarterly or annually, depending on the publication.

Journal articles are written by researchers and experts in their field. Scholarly or academic journals go through a "peer review" process, where a panel of experts assesses the article before it is approved for publication, giving you reassurance that the information is reliable. Like books, the more scholarly articles also contain reference lists or bibliographies so that you can broaden your research by following up leads to related publications.

The majority of the journals available via the library are in digital format.  This means they are available to you any time, any place and ensures you can access the latest journal issues as soon as they are published.

Hint: Use the journal finder to browse journal subscriptions in your research area.

Guidelines are summaries of evidence drawn from systematic reviews or the best available primary studies, and are an integration of the best available evidence. They provide recommendations on treatment or care of conditions. NICE Evidence Search is a search engine which allows you to easily search for guidelines, systematic reviews and patient information and quickly filter to the type of evidence that you need.

The papers that researchers deliver at conference and symposia around the world are often published after the event, in print and/or digital format. They may be published as a book, in a special issue of a journal or on an organisations' website.  Some may not be published at all.

Published conference papers are often the first time that research findings are publicly presented and debated so they can be sources of cutting edge research.

Many are subject to peer review, just like scholarly journals, which acts as a quality assurance check.

Subject databases may index major conference proceedings as an aid to their discovery. The following tools will also enable you to find conference papers and proceedings in your area.


Web of Science: Conference Proceedings Index 

Web of Science indexes the most significant conferences and seminars since 1990 in  the Science and Social Sciences & Humanities.  Select the proceedings indexes from More Settings on the Web of Science search screen.

Zetoc provides a search and alert service via the British Library's electronic table of contents database. To search for conferences, select the Conference Search option and complete the search form.  


Google Scholar

Use the Google Scholar search tool to find conference papers and information that hsa been indexed on the web. Search for your research area, add conference and a year if you wish to pinpoint a particular period.

Reference resources such as dictionaries and handbooks enable you to:

  • examine facts and statistics 
  • decipher abbreviations and definitions
  • gain an overview of a topic                                     

They can be really useful resources as you begin your background research into a topic, before you move on to more in depth research via your Subject databases.

You may find the following reference resources helpful for providing an overview of your subject:

Statistics is the science of collecting, analysing and presenting numerical data and can be a vital source of information for your studies.

Statistical data can be found on a huge variety of subjects including:

  • employment
  • government
  • health
  • population

A wide range of data and statistical sources are available to you via the Data section of the A-Z Database List. Databases covering the science of statistics can be found in the Statistics Subject List. Many organisations and governments also make statistical data freely available.

Use the Finding Statistics: Quick Guide for more information.

Search engines such as Google have made it very easy to search and find information via the internet and it is highly likely that you will use the web to find information for your research.

However, the sheer volume of material available means that sometime it can be difficult to find the information you want. Most search engines offer advanced search options that allow you to refine your search i.e. Google Advanced Search.  If you want to find academic materials, search using Google Scholar.

When using material from the internet, you need to exercise caution as anyone can publish information on the web so the quality and reliability of the information is highly variable.  Always evaluate the sources to ensure the material is trustworthy, accurate and authoritative.

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