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Find Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources in the Sciences

What are primary sources in the sciences?

  • A source that describes an original experiment or research that the authors of the article did themselves.
  • Usually takes the form of a journal article.
  • Provides details on how the research was conducted, includes data, and outlines the authors’ interpretation of the work.
  • Usually includes the following sections: Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion, References.

How do I identify primary sources in the sciences?

Key terms to look for:

  • Introduction – the section where the authors explain the context and purpose of the research
  • Methods – the section where the authors describe how their experience was set up.
  • Results – the section where the authors present the data they collected. Usually there are tables and graphs in this section.
  • Discussion – the section where the authors discuss the meaning of the results.

What are secondary sources in the sciences?

  • A source that describes, summarizes, or offers commentary on experiences or research that other people did.
  • Summarizes and synthesizes the state of research into a particular topic.
  • Usually takes the form of a journal article, book, or book chapter.
  • Can be used to find useful primary sources by looking at the reference list.

How do I identify secondary articles in the sciences?

Key terms to look for:

  • Literature review
  • Review article
  • Meta-analysis – a type of literature review where dozens, sometimes even hundreds of primary articles are reviewed and compared for similarities and differences
  • Systematic review – another type of literature review where authors create a detailed search strategy for scientific literature and look only in certain databases. The authors will report what this search strategy was in their methods section

What are tertiary sources in the sciences?

  • A source that broadly summarizes what is known on a scientific topic, or that collects facts or data.
  • Usually takes the form of an encyclopedia, handbook, field guide, or textbook.

How do I identify tertiary sources in the sciences?

Key terms to look for:

  • Encyclopedia – a book or set of books consisting of entries, often arranged alphabetically, on topics of general knowledge or a specific discipline.
  • Handbook – a book that contains facts, data, or instructions, and that is designed for quick reference.
  • Field guide – a type of handbook that is meant for quick reference while working in the field.
  • Textbook – a book written to teach the reader about a topic. Usually only contains information on which there is a broad scientific consensus.

Top Picks: Articles in the Sciences

Resources to Help with Research

Guide: find scholarly articlesVideo: Cite Your Sources: When / Why to CiteGuide: Choose the Best Info

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