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CNHP 3500: Research Methods: Types of Medical Literature

Types of Medical Literature

Different types of publications have different characteristics.

Primary Literature
Primary sources are original materials.  It is authored by researchers, contains original research data, and is usually published in a peer-reviewed journal. Primary literature may also include conference papers, pre-prints, or preliminary reports. Also called empirical research.

Secondary Literature
Secondary literature consists of interpretations and evaluations that are derived from or refer to the primary source literature. Examples include review articles (specifically meta-analysis and systematic reviews) and reference works. Professionals within each discipline take the primary literature and synthesize, generalize, and integrate new research.

Tertiary Literature
Tertiary literature consists of a distillation and collection of primary and secondary sources such as textbooks, encyclopedia articles, and guidebooks or handbooks. The purpose of tertiary literature is to provide an overview of key research findings and an introduction to principles and practices within the discipline.

Adapted from the Information Services Department of the Library of the Health Sciences-Chicago, University of Illinois at Chicago.


Original research results in journals,
dissertations, conference proceedings, correspondence


Abstracting and indexing services, review articles, systematic reviews, meta-analysis, practice guidelines


Text books, encyclopedias, handbooks, newspapers

Sources: NEJM, JAMA Sources: PubMed, CINAHL, Cochrane Library, Web of Science
Sources:  Goodman & Gilman's, Williams Obstetrics