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How Scientific and Technical Information Works

Learn everything you need to know about scientific literature, including how to find, understand, use, and ultimately create your own.

The Scientific Communication Ecosystem

Scientists, engineers, technologists, and mathematicians all produce and consume information. In the hundreds of years since Western science began to systematically employ the scientific method, complex formalized systems have evolved to allow scientists to share their findings, receive feedback, and learn from each other. This information sharing process is a major part of how science functions today.

A Keystone Species of the Scientific Ecosystem: Scholarly Publications

Perhaps the archetypal example of this ecosystem at work is the scholarly academic journal, and the peer reviewed academic articles published within it. Academic journals provide a platform for scientists to share their work with their peers, and they also provide a gatekeeping system to ensure that only high quality, relevant, and carefully fact-checked information makes it to publication. This system is called "peer review" and while it isn't perfect, it is a powerful force within the scientific communication ecosystem.

While peer reviewed journal articles are often spoken of as a "gold standard" due to the strength of the peer review system, they are by no means the only way that scientific information is shared. In some fields, such as computer science, much information is shared through conference proceedings, which are shorter papers written to accompany authors' presentations and posters at academic conferences. Additionally, the book-length dissertations produced by academics in order to receive their PhD are often exciting sources of scholarship.

Information for a Multitude of Purposes

Additionally, a rich body of literature exists for purposes outside of sharing new discoveries. In engineering and related fields, a valuable source of information is the technical standard, a formal document created by a governing body to establish specifications and procedures that maximize the efficiency, safety, and effectiveness of a product, method, or service. Patents, technical reports, and safety codes are all part of the same class of information, which are crucial for facilitating the work of people in STEM fields, but are focused more on consolidating established knowledge than on exploration or discovery.

And, in the course of all endeavors, a class of information referred to as "grey literature" is produced. This is information which is meant only for the members of an organization or group, and is neither scholarly nor commercial in purpose. Common examples of grey literature in science and technology are internal reports, evaluations, white papers, internally collected datasets, and the like. Grey literature is often quite difficult to locate or access, but it can be very useful in many situations.

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