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Background information

Research of published material is generally carried out on bibliographic databases. These are large indexes of articles, generally from a number of journals that you can search in one place.

Use the sections below to find information on databases focusing on specific areas. Google Scholar can also help you find journal articles that you have access to via NHS Scotland subscriptions. Look below for a link to a downloadable flyer on using Google Scholar. Next see How to search

Categories of sources for research

Primary Source
A primary source is material which is created during the time period under study, or is created at a later date by someone who took part in the event being studied. It is a first-hand or eye-witness account of an event. Examples of primary sources include scientific reports written by the scientist involved, reports of studies by the individual or group who undertook the study, personal diaries and letters, memoirs or autobiographies.

Secondary Source 
A secondary source is interpretative or analytical and created at a date later than the event under study, by someone who was not directly involved in the original event. Examples include evidence summaries, systematic reviews, textbooks and commentaries. 

Grey Literature 
Grey literature is the term used to describe papers, reports, technical notes and other documents produced and “published” by government agencies, academic institutions and other groups and which are not distributed or indexed by commercial publishers. This means that the documents can be difficult to identify and obtain. 

The type of resource used will depend on the search query. This is not a comprehensive list, but categories can include:

  • Conference Proceedings; 
  • Guidelines/Knowledge Summaries; 
  • Repositories; 
  • Specialist Search Engines; 
  • Statistics and Census Data;
  • Research and Policy.

A general caveat with grey literature is that it may not have been subjected to rigorous evaluation and/or validation. This is something you will have to decide upon as you recover information, ensuring that any grey literature utilised is assessed for quality. Google is often a useful starting place for this type of information.  For information on a range of sources see NHSS Guide to searching grey literature below.

Statistical information and data 

This is dictated by your setting and question. World Health Organisation, Governments, societies and other organisations provide useful sources of data. This can be complemented by data from local audits etc.

Bibliographic databases 
Bibliographic databases are online collections of published literature including journal articles, conference proceedings, medicines information, books and standards.

There is a wide range of databases aimed at all staff groups, available through The Knowledge Network. Access to full text subscription content is through your Athens username and password.

Types of research

You may frequently come across the following two terms in much of the research you are reading. The information or evidence you identify may be:

Explains phenomena by collecting numerical data that are analyzed using mathematically based methods (in particular statistics). (Aliaga and Gunderson, 2005). For example, evidence on the type, timing and frequency of exercise required by patients with a particular health problem to help them to retain or regain mobility.

Focuses on the experiences, interpretations, impressions or motivations of an individual or individuals. It seeks to describe how people view a phenomenon and why (Parahoo, 2006). For example, evidence that identifies why people do or don’t follow recommended exercise programmes.

Which database should you use?

If you are unsure which source is best for your question, start by using the Library Search box on The Knowledge Network homepage. The filters to the left of your search results will suggest sources that have high numbers of results.

Alternatively, see the database descriptions on our databases information page, where they also categorised broadly by discipline. Use the websites of the individual databases to benefit from even more search options and functions.