The Information Landscape: an Overview of information types and when they appear in publication
Students often encounter a checklist of different publication format requirements when they receive their first major research assignment. They may be asked to use a certain number of books as sources, or a certain number of scholarly journal articles; they may be asked to use several different formats for the same paper.
Before starting on a research assignment, students may not have thought much about these different kinds of sources and why each exists. Some formats will be relevant to one research question but not others. Which are likely to be most useful to you will depend on both your assignment requirements and the nature of your research question. Let’s look briefly at the major formats you are likely to encounter.
Scholarly journals are the gold standard when it comes to high-quality research sources and you will likely be asked again and again to use scholarly journal articles as you move through your degree program. Scholarly journals go by other names. You may see them called academic journals, or peer-reviewed journals, or refereed journals, but they all refer to the same thing. Here’s what you need to know about them.
Researchers and scholars publish their work in scholarly journals. You may read about some new discovery or re-search study in a newspaper article, or see it covered by a science reporter on cable news, but these sources are simply reporting on what was originally published in a scholarly journal article.
Because scholarship builds on earlier scholarship, it is essential to the community of researchers and scholars that their literature is as correct and rigorous as possible. To ensure that only quality articles are published, scholars use the process of peer-review.
Let’s walk through an example:
Jim Schultz is a professor of sociology. He recently completed a study of student groups on campus, and has written an article. Because scholarly journals can be very narrowly focused on highly specialized fields of study, Jim’s first step is to identify a journal that publishes the kind of research he has conducted. He may consult with a librarian or with colleagues in order to identify promising journals.
Jim investigates the formatting and citation style required by a promising journal, formats his paper accordingly, and submits his article for possible publication. The editor of the journal reviews the article and determines that it could be a good fit for the journal. The research is within the main-stream of research in the field and it contributes original knowledge to the field.
The editor then sends the article to a small group of scholars experienced with Jim’s kind of research. These scholars are anonymous and will go through the article with a fine toothed comb, scrutinizing the methodology of the study and making sure other aspects of the article (such as its review of the existing literature and its discussion of findings) are of sufficient quality for publication. The reviewers make notes on where the article could be improved, on important citations missing from the literature review, and every other aspect of the paper.
Jim doesn’t know who his reviewers are, but he received their comments. From there he makes revisions to his work and resubmits the article to the journal. If this revised version of his article is accepted, his work will be published in that journal.
The peer-review process is the most rigorous process we have for ensuring quality; it is also a major requirement for most forms of faculty tenure. For both these reasons expect scholarly journals to loom large in your future re-search in college.
Tip: most databases and discovery services will include a check box for scholarly or peer-reviewed journal articles. By checking it off, you will only get scholarly articles in your search results.
Trade and Popular Publications
Many of us grew up reading magazines like Time or Newsweek. Whether at the grocery store or the newsstand, the overwhelming majority of the magazines we encounter are considered popular publications. This includes titles ranging from Popular Science to Rolling Stone. What makes these titles popular? Briefly put, the business model of these publications depends on advertising dollars; how much the publications can charge for advertising space depends in large part on the number of readers (i.e., how popular the title is with readers.)
Plenty of experts and authorities write articles for popular publications. But it should already be apparent that the motivations of popular publishers are different than those of scholarly journals. The editors of popular magazines decide what to publish based at least in part on whether the content will sell more copies. Articles are fact-checked, but without the same scrutiny that peer-reviewed articles undergo.
Popular magazines can be perfectly adequate for some kinds of research, but expect to find them less and less useful as research sources as you progress through your classes. They simply lack the authority and coverage essential to college-level research.
A second kind of magazine will likely be more useful--trade publications. Trade publications (sometimes called trade rags or trade magazines) are similar in many ways to popular magazines. They rely on advertising dollars to stay in business and they do not provide the same rigorous peer-review process that scholarly journals do.
The real difference between popular and trade publications is audience. Most popular titles are written for general audiences. This means that the language is at a relatively low reading level and few technical terms are included. The publications presume their readers know little about the content area. With trade publications, the audience is a particular industry or job field.
An example of a trade publication is Advertising Age. For those in the advertising or publishing industries, Advertising Age is an important source of current information on the state of the industry. The magazine presumes that the reader already has a good working knowledge of advertising, so the articles are more narrowly focused and likely to include industry-specific terminology and concepts.
As a way to learn about a new job field, or to stay current on new technologies and trends in your future professions, trade publications are an important go-to source.
Newspapers will probably not be a common source of information for your college-level research papers. News-paper articles are edited and fact-checked, but without the same scrutiny as a peer-reviewed article. Newspaper articles typically lack depth and background information. Their real value is in their immediacy. Newspapers provide current coverage of events and so can be helpful to us when our research topics are historical in nature. We will have more to say about the immediacy of newspaper articles later in the chapter when we talk about the information time line.
Monographs (also known as books) provide detail and comprehensive coverage of topics that isn’t duplicated by other formats. Books, or monographs, are sometimes neglected as sources by new student researchers. They cannot be accessed quite as quickly as electronic articles, and one often has to physically locate a book to determine whether it will really be useful on a given project.
Part of the challenge of using books for a project is that library catalog records tell us relatively little about what a given book contains. A typical book record will include title and author, publication information, a handful of subject headings assigned to the book, location information, and (sometimes) a table of contents. This is enough information to identify promising book titles to further investigate for use in research, but not enough to know definitively whether a book directly or sufficiently addresses a research question. With print books, you will want to physically locate and investigate the book. This can be difficult to do when a student researcher is conducting their research online.
Ebooks are one option for off-site researchers. Besides including the full text of their print-version equivalents, they are usually full text searchable. That means you can much more quickly determine whether a given title is going to be useful for your research project.
Sometimes important information for a project comes not from books or articles, but from a thesis or dissertation, or from the proceedings of a conference. Grey literature is a catch-all term for these types of sources. Other examples of grey literature include technical documents and formatted reports, such as those produced by industry and various think tanks.
Grey literature has traditionally been more difficult to track down for student researchers, but a great deal of grey literature is now available in databases. Organizational websites and think tank websites also create and distribute grey literature.
Social media, blogs, vlogs
Similar to newspapers, the real value in social media content is in the immediacy of the information. Social media provides real-time coverage of and reaction to events. How and whether social media is a viable source of information will depend on the nature of your research project.
The Information Timeline
The information timeline is one way for us to think about how different kinds of publications provide different perspectives on a topic based on when they are published, from when information on a topic or event appears in initial broadcasts or web-based reports to far more comprehensive analysis and coverage in peer-reviewed scholarship and books. Understanding the information timeline lets us know when we can expect information sources to appear in publication, and more broadly improves our understanding of the role each type of source plays in our research. Different formats of information, after all, have varying levels of research depth, credibility, and proximity to the event you might be researching.
Let’s walk through an example. If you are writing a college research paper about the terrorist attacks on 9/11, these are some common information types and when they became available.
On the day of the attacks, the only information you would find would be from news websites, broadcast media such a CNN, and social media. This breaking news content can provide immediate information on the event, but can also lack context and background information. Coverage may be confused and facts may be misreported.
The following day stories are published in newspapers. Newspaper articles often provide more in-depth actual in-formation than the television or online news sources. These newspaper articles will begin the task of contextualizing the attacks and will include additional fact-checking. They will also synthesize much of the reporting of the previous day.
Popular magazine coverage appears one to two weeks later, with articles on the attacks appearing in publications such as Time and Newsweek. Magazines often provide greater context to a story than is found in newspaper or web-based articles, and will develop the background of a story in greater depth. Articles may be authored by national security experts and others with relevant expertise. While the articles will not be extensively sourced at this point, analysis is much more robust than that found in social media or newspapers.
After about six months, scholarly journals will begin to publish articles on the attacks. These journal articles provide peer-reviewed, discipline-specific research relevant to the attacks. These scholarly articles are written by experts, are formally objective, and likely include original research and analysis. Note that they are also likely to be very narrowly focused. Trade publications may also provide relevant trade and industry-specific information and analysis around this time.
Finally, books will begin to appear a year so after a story or event. Books are useful for their in-depth research-based information about your topic; the best of them will also include extensive footnotes, background information, context, and analysis.