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Prime Time: 'Primary lit' - all else is secondary

How do scientists disseminate research results? Well, like anyone, they talk to others informally or at meetings. But, critically, they publish. Ultimately, research is not complete until it is published.

Example: At the University of Michigan in the late '50s, I wrote a graduate paper in a Vertebrate Paleontology course. Each student studied fossils collected by our prof and his team, mostly in southwest Kansas. I examined ground squirrel teeth and jaws (genus Citellus back then). They were from two different sites, Middle and Upper Pliocene beds now judged to be about four and two million years old, respectively. Also, I brought along some of the fossils to Bemidji in '58, and used a more precise measuring technique than before. I concluded that, though the fossils from the older site averaged slightly smaller than those from the younger one, they did not differ enough to justify naming a new species. Comparing tooth structure with some living species of ground squirrels, I also inferred that the extinct species was close to the common ancestry of two living subgenera. My short paper, "The subgeneric status and distribution in time of Citellus rexroadensis," appeared in the November 1961 Journal of Mammalogy.

Modest as it was, it was an example of what scientists call the "primary literature:" the results of original research, typically published in peer-reviewed professional journals. More important papers are not necessarily longer. Perhaps the most important mid-century biological paper, "Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids: A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid," by James Watson and Francis Crick, appeared on two pages of the British journal Nature in 1953, based on their research at Cambridge University.

The restraint in their report is delicious. It begins, "We wish to suggest a structure for" DNA, not "We have found the structure of" DNA, and their final sentence reads, "It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material." This translates as, "We've found DNA's structure, and that suggests how genes copy themselves (and Nobel Prize, here we come)."

Like most breakthroughs, their work built on the findings of others, particularly the X-ray crystallography of Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilson at the University of London. Watson and Crick's 1953 paper acknowledges them. They and Wilson received the Nobel Prize in 1962, but Franklin had unfortunately died in 1958. Nobel Prizes are awarded only to living scientists.

Well, if the primary lit comprises peer-reviewed reports of original research, what constitutes "secondary literature?" Basically, everything else. The secondary literature is writings about the primary literature. And that is where you come in, because the secondary literature contains more stuff laypeople can understand.

Depending on the biological specialty, some primary literature may be inaccessible to most laypeople. Scientists, science writers, journalists, and others read the primary literature and relevant secondary literature, and write about it for various audiences.

The audience may be other scientists in the same specialty, other scientists in general, educated laypeople, or "T.C. Mits" and "T.C. Wits" (the common man in the street and common woman in the street, or the "general public"). One good example of science writing for the general public is Dr. Patrick Guilfoile's frequent articles on biological research in The Bemidji Pioneer. Note that he ends each article with a reference, often to an article in Science, the American equivalent of the British Nature.

So, are Nature and Science the "primary lit?" No, the "Reports" in Science and "Letters to Nature" in Nature are primary lit. Both journals also publish review articles, reports of meetings, book reviews, and other secondary literature. As with other journals that publish primary lit, Nature and Science subject all submissions to a critical "peer review" process. Having some expertise in Minnesota mammal natural history, I have even peer-reviewed a few articles, but not for Nature and Science.

Those two journals are unusual in that they are weeklies, and also have a short turnaround (but with stringent peer review) between submission and publication. That's critical if you want to be sure to publish before others working on the same subject. Many journals that publish bimonthly or quarterly have turnaround times of a year or longer. I have had book reviews (which are secondary lit) take close to two years.

A few professional biologists read Threescore and Ten, but what about the rest of you? There are oodles of periodicals and books that contain information (or misinformation) on things biological. You could use a guide to the secondary lit. I'll provide some pointers another time.

Evan Hazard, a retired Bemidji State University biology professor, also writes Northland Stargazing the fourth Friday of each month and blogs on the Bemidji Pioneer website at under Area Voices.