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WHSL Introduction to the Medical Literature: Types of Medical Literature

This guide will show you the basics of how to find information in print and online at the Witwatersrand Health Sciences Library

Types of Medical Literature

The medical literature, like all scientific literature, consists primarily of scholarly (or academic) books and journals.


Books are useful for general background and in-depth coverage of a topic. They are often not as current as journal articles because they take a long time to research, write and publish. A book is distinguished by the fact that it has an author (or several authors) writing on a single topic.

A book citation will always have a place of publication and a publisher, eg. Trowell. H.C. Kwashiorkor. London: Edward Arnold, 1954. In this example London is the place of publication and Edward Arnold is the publisher.

Scholarly Journals

Scholarly journals differ from popular magazines in a number of important ways. Popular magazines are produced for a wide audience and provide basic information and/or entertainment. Scholarly journals are written for scholars, students and researchers to advance the cause of research in a given field.

Journals are sometimes also called periodicals, becasue they are published periodically, ie. weekly, monthly, bi-monthly, etc. They are also referred to as serials, because they appear serially, as opposed to a once-off book publication. The page numbers of the journal issues are usually sequential, so that the pagination of issue two will continue from the next page after the last page of issue one.

Journal Articles

Each scholarly journal consists of several articles written by many different authors. Articles are usually narrow in scope and contain focused treatment of a single topic. Scholarly articles are usually written by experts on the topic.

Electronic Books and Journals

Most of WHSL's current literature is now only available in electronic format. 

You will be able to access WHSL's e-book collection by consulting the LibGuide WHSL e-Resources in Health Care. Ebooks have been arranged in two lists: alphabetical by title, and under the MeSH subject heading. You will learn more about MeSH before beginning to search PubMed. 

If you know the platform under which a particular ebook is published, eg. AccessMedicine, STAT!Ref, ClinicalKey, etc., you may also open the list of e-databases and open the relevnt book from the publisher platform. 

Use the e-journal finder to check if WHSL has a subscription to a particular e-journal. Check to see the availability under each publisher hyperlink, and especailly to see if the current articles are embargoed, and if they are, for how long this embargo is in effect. An embargo means that the publishers will not release current content unless the oprganisation has a paid subscription to the journal, even if archived (or older content) is available free of charge. If WHSL has a subscription to a particluar title, you will see the date range is indicated as "Available from ....", without any indication that current content is not available. An embargo is indicated by a date range such as "Available from 1966 to 2005", or by a statement such as "Available from 1966. Most recent 1 year not available".

Ejournals are still mostly organised along the same lines as print journals have been for the past 300 years, although some journals are now developing specifically in order to exploit Web capabilities, eg. PLoSMedicine. Ejournals are still organised into volumes and issues each year, still have contents pages in which the articles are displayed, still have individual authors for each articleand still have page numbers (even if these are electronic pages, indicated by an e before the number, eg. e45) on which those articles are to be found. Note however that the epage number may differ from the print page number. 

You may cite (refer to) the medical literature using one of two styles accepted at the Faculty of Health Sciences: Vancouver (most commonly used for clinical medicine), or Harvard (mostly used for allied health sciences) and the basic preclinical sciences.