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Information resources for Biology.

Primary Source vs Secondary Sources in the Sciences

In the Sciences, primary sources are documents that provide full description of the original research. For example, a primary source would be a journal article where scientists describe their research on the human immune systems. A secondary source would be an article commenting on or analyzing the scientists' research on the human immune system.


   Primary Source Secondary Source
Definitions Original materials or original research that has not been filtered through interpretation or evaluation by a second party.   Sources that contain commentary on or a discussion about a primary source.
Timing of Publication Cycle Primary sources tend to come first in the publication cycle.    Secondary sources tend to come second in the publication cycle.
Formats - depends on the kind of analysis being conducted. Conference papers, dissertations, interviews, lab notebooks, patents, a study reported in a journal article, a survey reported in a journal article, and technical reports. Review articles, magazine articles, and books.

Example: Scientists studying Genetically Modified Foods.

Article in a scholarly journal reporting research and methodology.   Articles analyzing and commenting on the results of original research; books and websites doing the same.


Identifying Original Research

Some databases, such as ScienceDirect, allow you to select only Research Articles to view.

Original research articles often have very identifiable components.  These will include some or all of the following components:

  • Abstract - summarizes the research article
  • Materials & Methods - describes the research procedure
  • Title - briefly states what the article is about
  • Figures - diagrams, pictures, or photograph illustrating material from the text or research data
  • References - an extensive list of studies discovered while reviewing the literature for this experiment and writing the paper
  • Author - identifies who wrote the paper and any important affiliations like university or institutions
  • Acknowledgements - acknowledges and thanks people or institutions that were instrumental in the research
  • Discussion - interpretation of the results, explaining and comparing them to results of other experiments
  • Tables - a set of data arranged in rows and columns

Review articles are often as lengthy or even longer than original research articles. What the authors of review articles are doing is analyzing and evaluating current research and investigations related to a specific topic, field, or problem. They are not primary sources since they review previously published material. They can be of great value for identifying potentially good primary sources, but they aren't primary themselves.

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