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Primary vs. Secondary Sources for Scientific Research

This guide will define primary and secondary sources which can be used for scientific research.

Primary Sources in the Sciences

Primary Sources in the Sciences

What's a primary source in the sciences?

Primary sources in the sciences (and many social sciences), report original research, ideas, or scientific discoveries for the first time. Primary sources in the sciences may also be referred to as primary research, primary articles, or research studies. Examples include research studies, scientific experiments, papers and proceedings from scientific conferences or meetings, dissertations and theses, and technical reports.

The following are some characteristics of scientific primary sources:

  • They report results/findings/data from experiments or research studies.
  • They do not include meta-analyses, systematic reviews, or literature reviews.  These are secondary sources.
  • They are frequently found in peer-reviewed or scholarly journals.
  • They should explain the research methodology used and frequently include methods, results, and discussion sections.
  • They are factual, not interpretive.

How do I find primary sources in the sciences?

A good place to start your search is in a subject-specific database. Many of these databases include options to narrow your search by source type. Not sure which database to use? Check out our Database A-Z List (use the dropdown menu to filter by subject).

Information adapted from Binghamton University Library

Primary Sources in the Sciences

When searching for biomedical literature, you will find two types of articles: primary and secondary. Primary sources include articles that describe original research. Secondary sources analyze and interpret primary research.

Primary Literature 

Characteristics Examples
 Original source of research or new discoveries.    Original research article published in a peer reviewed journal
Results of scientific activities and raw data
Methods section for other scientists to replicate study Technical reports

Secondary Literature

Characteristics Examples
Summarizes and synthesizes primary literature Literature review or review articles
Might be broader or less current than primary literature Books
Do not provide new data or research

Adapted from Regis University Library