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Pharmacy 504 - Secondary Resources and Library Skills - September 2017

What is Scholarly Literature?

What is scholarly literature? 

Scholarly literature is

  • authored by credentialed professors, researchers, or other scholars in a field for scholars and researchers in that field -- a scholarly article will have a clearly defined author or authors and will usually indicate where the author is working and in what position.
  • peer-reviewed -- it has been vetted by experts in the field before publication; if the research method is not rigorous enough, it will not be published.
  • reviewed by an editorial board before publication -- a scholarly journal will have an editorial review board listed at the beginning of the journal; these are people who are generally associated with a university research center or scholarly research center.
  • published by a reputable publisher

Scholarly literature includes:

  • journal articles
  • books
  • conference proceedings

Scholarly literature does not include:

  • websites
  • magazines
  • personal communication
  • news articles

Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources


In general, information sources can be sorted into three types: primary, secondary, and tertiary.


Type of Source Definition Examples

Primary sources are original materials on which other research is based.


The works present new thinking/discoveries/results and unite them with the existing knowledge base. 

Conference papers


Technical Reports

Theses & dissertations

Journal articles reporting on primary studies (RCTs, observational studies, case-control studies, etc.)


Secondary Sources are those which are published about the primary literature. 

They are sources that:

  • generalize, analyze, interpret, evaluate or otherwise “add value” to the original information,


  • simplify the process of finding and evaluating the primary literature. 

Review articles (systematic reviews, literature reviews, comprehensive narrative reviews, etc.)

Databases (PubMed, Embase, Scopus, etc.)



Tertiary sources consist of information which is a distillation and collection of primary and secondary sources.

They aim to provide a broad overview of a topic, or data, already proven facts, and definitions, often presented in a convenient form. They provide no new information

Reference works (encyclopedias, textbooks, guides, handbooks)

Point of care resources (Micromedex, UpToDate, Facts & Comparisons)


Databases - PubMed Embase and Scopus

When searching for literature, you will want to consider the following secondary sources: PubMed, Embase and Scopus.

PubMed and Embase are the two major health sciences databases. PubMed has a slight focus on literature from the US, and Embase has a slight focus on literature from Europe and Japan.  Scopus is a large, multidisciplinary database, which encompasses much of the literature from PubMed and Embase, as well as literature from other sources in the sciences, social sciences, and humanities.

PubMed and Embase have a number of similarities. Both databases:

  • ​have millions of citations from thousands of journals
  • cover over 60 years (limited historical coverage dating to the 19th century)
  • use controlled vocabularies: MeSH in PubMed, Emtree in Embase

However, there are some key differences between PubMed and Embase. 


  • is sponsored by the NIH and the National Library of Medicine
  • is freely available to everyone
  • contains MEDLINE plus ~6 months of new publications not yet indexed for MEDLINE


  • is sponsored by Elsevier, a publishing company based in the Netherlands
  • is subscription only (you may not have access at another institution or private company)
  • includes MEDLINE plus articles that are only indexed in Embase


  • is sponsored by Elsevier (also subscription only)
  • includes MEDLINE, some coverage from Embase, and coverage from other sources in the sciences, social sciences, humanities, etc.
  • does not use controlled vocabulary, making searching more manual

Primary and Secondary Literature - A Word of Caution

Once you've got your journal articles (primary literature), it's up to you to figure out how good the studies are. Less than ten percent of articles published in core medical journals are both high quality and clinically useful. You'll need to be a discerning reader to determine the quality and significance of any literature you find in your searches.

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