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Health Science Information & Articles - Types, Uses, and Sources

Learn to recognize and identify uses for different types of health information.

Health Info

The type of health information you use should match your purpose. In some cases, news is fine. In others, a full research article is the best. Know what's available and think about what you need (and why).

News

Health Science news is big business, and there are many sources. All major news organizations (CNN, MSNBC, etc.) have Health sections, but some have better coverage than others. Be careful of interpretation--not all articles will be written by journalists who understand the health science and the scientific process. For instance, "wonder food" articles tout the benefits of some food or supplement, but the studies are often done on very small groups of people, or people with specific conditions, that make their findings less applicable to the general population.

News articles rarely give complete citations to research articles. News articles are often based on press releases sent before the actual research article is published. Mentions of "current issue of (journal)" are common. Check journal tables of contents for issues near the news article publication date.

Professional associations often have news on their websites and in their publications. They can be some of the best sources for news directly related to the field.

Here are a few sources for Health news:

Consumer Health articles

Consumer Health articles include Health News articles, but also magazines such as Prevention and Health. Articles in these magazines are usually accurate, but may be slanted towards the general purpose of the magazine (for instance, few "natural health" magazines will run articles praising antibiotics) and the advertisers. Bias is more likely to be in the form of neglected information or topics, rather than outright falsehood.

Like News, Consumer Health articles will usually mention research, but may not be too specific about an actual reference. Mentions of "latest issue of (journal)" are common, so the date of the journal may be hard to pinpoint exactly. Exact titles and even author/researcher names are not common. You may have to skim several issue tables of contents before finding the correct article.

Consumer Health articles are often excellent for getting overviews of a topic, and provide information in a readable form for patients.

Health and Medical Encyclopedias, Dictionaries, and Handbooks

Health and Medicine Encyclopedias, Dictionaries, and Handbooks can provide basic health and medicine information, definitions and explanations of concepts and vocabulary, and descriptions of procedures, processes, and functions.

Trade Journals

Trade journals are journals specifically aimed at working professionals in a field. They are often published by a professional organization or association. They specialize in useful information for professionals, presented in a way that is quick to read and understand, and that is, above all, applicable to on-the-job situations. While they often cover the latest research, they do not, generally, publish research articles. Instead, their writers summarize and interpret the research, emphasizing application and the effect on the profession. Other topics such as continuing education, legal matters, news and controversies,

For instance, an article about a new drug will not be the actual clinical trial of the drug, but will cover the results of that trial and other related research, including benefits compared to previous treatments, contraindications, side effects, job skills, employment matters, etc.

Student journals also fall into the Trade Journal category. Many health fields have special journals just for students, covering subject content, licensing or testing, continuing education, study skills, job skills, job hunting tips, etc.

Blogs and Individual websites

There are thousands of blogs about health topics, everything from researchers to organizations to individuals experiencing health issues. Many individual blogs are started with the express purpose of "making it easier for someone else to find information on this disease". Some blogs are set up specifically to sell products. There is some great information in blogs, and a lot of benefit comes from simply being able to read the stories of others. However, remember that none of the information on an average blog is checked for accuracy. Even the best intentioned writer may simply get something wrong, and some will deliberately bend and twist information to support their point or product. Always double check any information found in blogs, and not just by following the links given in the blog posts.

If in doubt, assume a website is a blog or equivalent unverified source.

See Evaluating Sources for more strategies for evaluating websites (and other sources).

Science/Health Abstracting and Summary Services

These services and publications are specifically aimed at professionals in the sciences and health fields. Research articles are summarized by trained writers (often researchers themselves). Accuracy and proper interpretation are stressed. Full and accurate references are always included, though they may be to a press release or announcement if the full research articles have not been published yet.

The main purpose of these services and publications is to provide a shortcut for professionals: either to provide enough accurate information that the full article need not be read in its entirety or to determine if the full article needs to be tracked down and read.

Library databases for specific subjects are one example of these services. There are also specific publications that highlight and summarize research occuring in the time period between issues (usually weekly).

Research Journals

Research journals publish research articles, the primary sources for experimental, scientific, and medical information. They may also publish news, editorials, preliminary scientific work, reviews of books, equipment, or other resources, professional conference information, and articles related to the profession, such as employment or continuing education.

Research articles are articles that describe research studies, almost always written by the researchers who did the work (making the article a "primary" source, as well.) Research articles include classic experimental work, data analysis, program or research assessment, clinical trials (of drugs, procedures, or equipment), setup and/or results of preliminary or pilot projects, case studies, and more. See more about Recognizing and Reading Research Articles on the next tab.

Articles may also be "peer reviewed" or "refereed". This means that the article has been reviewed by one or more other researchers in the same field and approved for publication. Journals that publish peer reviewed articles are often referred to as peer reviewed journals, but every article in them may not be peer reviewed. In the most health journals, only the research articles in a peer reviewed journal will actually be peer reviewed.

"Review" articles are a completely different type of article. A review article is an extensive and comprehensive summary of the research on a particular, often very specific, topic: for instance, the treatment options for a particular condition. They are not research articles, but they cover all the research related to the topic. Review articles can give you a head start on doing library research on a topic, since most of the significant research will be covered--up to the time of writing. Since articles can take 1-2 years to be published, searching for more recent research should include articles 2 years back from the publication date of the research article. (For a more accurate date, check the references for the most recent publication cited.)

Subject related library databases are usually the best source for research articles--some databases, such as CINAHL, MEDLINE, and PsycInfo, also have ways of specifying research or types of research studies (usually in the Advanced Search--look for check boxes for Research or Document/Publication Type lists that include different types of research such as clinical trials, meta-analysis, or case studies. Google Scholar and Microsoft Academic Search are the web equivalents of library databases. Use the Library's journal finder to find full text of the results. Also use the journal finder to track down articles in reference or works cited lists.

Data

There are an increasing number of data sets related to healthcare available, many for free. Data sets are collections of raw numbers--survey results, budgets, mapping data, etc.--which are available for download in some standard format.