To illustrate how the scholarly publication process can look like, we will follow how a research group's discoveries about the structure of DNA were published. When searching for literature, it is important to know where you can expect to find different types of information and where the latest, most up-to-date information in the subject area can be found.
The research begins
In the forties, the importance of DNA began to be realized and research into its structure gained momentum. This work was carried out at many universities and colleges in the world, including Cambridge University where the research group from 1951 consisted of James Watson and Francis Crick. The research groups at the various universities knew of each other's existence and had some insight into the work being carried out. Naturally, competition ensued – who would be the first to publish some sort of result?
Breakthrough - the double helix!
Watson and Crick win the race. In April 1953, they publish a short article in the journal Nature in which they show that the DNA structure is a double helix. Nature is a relatively general scientific journal that addresses both researchers and an interested public. The content of the article was therefore kept at such a level that one could understand it even without a university education in natural sciences. The article was only subjected to a very limited peer-review and could thus be published quickly. Even before the publication, however, several other research groups knew about the results, mainly through the informal contact networks. If you want to read the article, see the reference below.
Watson, J. D., & Crick, F. H. C. (1953). Molecular structure of nucleic acids: A structure for deoxyribose nucleic acid. Nature, 171(4356), 737–738. https://doi.org/10.1038/171737a0
They also published a follow-up article a month later, also in the scholarly journal Nature.
Image: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA. (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:DNA_Structure%2BKey%2BLabelled.pn_NoBB.png)
Presenting at a conference
In June of the same year, Crick and Watson attend a conference where they present their conclusions in more detail. Because the conference participants, like Crick and Watson, are scientists, the level of information is deeper than in the more general Nature article. The lecture also resulted in a paper that was published in the conference publication:
Watson, J. D., & Crick, F. H. (1953). The structure of DNA. Cold Spring Harbor Symposia on Quantitative Biology, 18, 123–131. https://doi.org/10.1101/SQB.1953.018.01.020
Conferences are a good way to stay up-to-date on what is going on in your own subject area. Even if you do not have the opportunity to participate in the meeting yourself, you can search and read the proceedings that are published after the conference. You can use the library's databases to search for conference contributions.
DNA in the newspapers
After the conference, the news about DNA was also published in some newspapers, but mostly as shorter notices, for example:
Drs. Watson and Crick find clue to chemistry of heredity by solving molecular pattern of nucleic acid DNA. (1953) New York Times, 13 juni.
Scientific journal article
In 1954, Watson and Crick publish an article in a more specialized scientific journal. In the article, they bring together and develop the Nature article, the conference contribution and the discussions they had with research colleagues. The article was previewed before acceptance. If there is prior interest in an article, it is common for it to circulate as a preprint even before it has been accepted for publication. If you read a preprint, it is important to remember that it has not been peer-reviewed yet and may therefore contain errors that are then corrected before publication.
Crick, F. H. C., & Watson, J. D. (1954). The Complementary Structure of Deoxyribonucleic Acid. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series A, Mathematical and Physical Sciences, 223(1152), 80–96. http://www.jstor.org/stable/99239
Four years after the first Nature article, the new findings about DNA are included in textbooks and other books. As we can see, it takes a while from the time a discovery is made until the result is found in books.
Snyder, L.H. (1957) The Principles of Heredity. 5. uppl. Boston: D.C. Heath
The big prize
In 1962, James Watson and Francis Crick together with Maurice Wilkins receive the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology. This naturally means a lot of attention, and their discovery is spread on television, radio, newspapers and magazines.
"…for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material"