Types of scholarly literature
You will encounter many types of articles and it is important to distinguish between these different categories of scholarly literature. Keep in mind the following definitions.
Peer-reviewed (or refereed): Refers to articles that have undergone a rigorous review process, often including revisions to the original manuscript, by peers in their discipline, before publication in a scholarly journal. This can include empirical studies, review articles, meta-analyses among others.
Empirical study (or primary article): An empirical study is one that aims to gain new knowledge on a topic through direct or indirect observation and research. These include quantitative or qualitative data and analysis. In science, an empirical article will often include the following sections: Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion.
Review article: In the scientific literature, this is a type of article that provides a synthesis of existing research on a particular topic. These are useful when you want to get an idea of a body of research that you are not yet familiar with. It differs from a systematic review in that it does not aim to capture ALL of the research on a particular topic.
Systematic review: This is a methodical and thorough literature review focused on a particular research question. It's aim is to identify and synthesize all of the scholarly research on a particular topic in an unbiased, reproducible way to provide evidence for practice and policy-making. It may involve a meta-analysis (see below).
Meta-analysis: This is a type of research study that combines or contrasts data from different independent studies in a new analysis in order to strengthen the understanding of a particular topic. There are many methods, some complex, applied to performing this type of analysis.
Types of non-formally published scholarly literature
What is Gray Literature?
Gray (or grey) literature is literature produced by individuals or organizations outside of commercial and/or academic publishers. This type of non-formally published substantive information (often not formally peer-reviewed; especially important in all kinds of sciences) can include information such:
- theses and dissertations
- technical reports
- working papers
- government reports
- evaluation and think tank reports and resources
- conference proceedings, papers and posters
- publications from NGOs, INGOs, think tanks and policy institutes
- unpublished clinical trials
- and much more
The sources you select will be informed by your research question and field of study, but should likely include, at a minimum, theses and dissertations.
Why Search the Gray Literature?
Most of gray literature is considered less prestigious, reliable, and "official" than publication in a peer-reviewed journal. But they are still fully legitimate avenues of publication. Often they are used to publicize early findings, before a study is entirely complete. Or, in the case of theses, they are published as a condition of receiving an advanced degree. Government technical reports are issued either by agencies that do scientific research themselves or else by a lab that has received government funding. Increasingly, such labs may be required to publish technical reports as a condition of receiving such funding. Gray literature may be cited like any other paper although with the caveat mentioned before that it is considered less "official" and reliable than peer-reviewed scientific papers.
When doing evidence synthesiis, it's important because the intent is to synthesize all available evidence that is applicable to your research question. There is a strong bias in scientific publishing toward publishing studies that show some sort of significant effect. Meanwhile, many studies and trials that show no effect end up going unpublished. But knowing that an intervention had no effect is just as important as knowing that it did have an effect when it comes to making decisions for practice and policy-making. While not peer-reviewed, gray literature represents a valuable body of information that is critical to consider when synthesizing and evaluating all available evidence.