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Primary Sources: Science

Identifying and Evaluating Scientific Primary Sources

A primary source in the sciences is usually a report on the results of an experiment by the person or group who performed it. They are usually published as scientific articles. Primary scientific articles contain high-level vocabulary and will usually present original data, often displayed in tables or charts.

The scientist reports the results of his or her own research. It is not a comment on someone else’s research, although the scientist may refer to someone else’s work in the body of the paper to illustrate the points he/she is trying to prove or disprove. Most scientific journals that are peer-reviewed are likely to contain primary literature. Peer-review means that a panel of experts will review all articles submitted for publication before they are accepted by the journal.

In a primary research article, you will typically see many or all of the following elements clearly presented:

  • An abstract/summary of the research about to be presented
  • Author’s affiliation
  • Introduction with thesis statement
  • A review of other literature pertaining to the experiment
  • Methods used to conduct the experiment
  • Materials and equipment used in the experiment
  • Results of the experiment (data) - may include tables, charts, graphs, figures, photographs
  • Discussion of the results
  • Conclusion
  • References/Bibliography

The presence of these components indicate that the author is presenting new data and ideas.

Research Articles vs Review Articles

Research articles ARE primary sources.  They contain the original account and data collected from a specific experiment, study, etc. You can identify a research article by looking for some of the following:

  • Detailed methods section explaining what, where, why, and how the experiments were completed
  • Results and analysis of those results, usually including tables and graphs
  • Look at the authors of the paper- did they do the experiment described themselves?

Not to be confused with a “peer reviewed journal,” Review articles are an attempt by one or more writers to sum up the current state of the research on a particular topic. Ideally, the writer searches for everything relevant to the topic, and then sorts it all out into a coherent view of the “state of the art” as it now stands. Review Articles will teach you about::

  • the main people working in a field
  • recent major advances and discoveries
  • significant gaps in the research
  • current debates
  • ideas of where research might go next

Review Articles are virtual gold mines if you want to find out what the key articles are for a given topic. Unlike research articles, review articles are good places to get a basic idea about a topic. However, review articles are NOT primary sources.

Databases for Science Primary Sources


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