Objective: To understand the use of internal tobacco industry documents in the peer reviewed health literature. Design: Interpretive analysis of published research. Sample: 173 papers indexed in Medline between 1995 and 2004 that cited tobacco industry documents. Analysis: Information about year published, journal and author, and a set of codes relating to methods reporting, were managed in N*Vivo. This coding formed the basis of an interpretation of tobacco document research reporting. Results: Two types of papers were identified. The first used tobacco documents as the primary data source (A-papers). The second was dedicated to another purpose but cited a small number of documents (B-papers). In B-papers documents were used either to provide a specific example or to support an expansive contention. A-papers contained information about purpose, sources, searching, analysis, and limitations that differed by author and journal and over time. A-papers had no clear methodological context, but used words from three major traditions - interpretive research, positivist research, and history-to describe analysis. Interpretation: A descriptive mainstream form of tobacco document reporting is proposed, initially typical but decreasing, and a continuum of positioning of the researcher, from conduit to constructor. Reporting practices, particularly from experienced researchers, appeared to evolve towards researcher as constructor, with later papers showing more complex purposes, diverse sources, and detail of searching and analysis. Tobacco document research could learn from existing research traditions: a model for planning and evaluating tobacco document research is presented.