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Find Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources in the Sciences

What are primary sources in the sciences?

  • A primary source describes an original experiment or research that the authors of the article did themselves.
  • It usually takes the form of a journal article.
  • It provides details on the methods used to conduct the experiment, reports the resulting data, and outlines the authors’ interpretation of the results.
  • It usually includes the following sections: Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion, References.

How do I identify primary sources in the sciences?

Look for these key terms:

  • Introduction – the section where the authors explain the context and purpose of the research.
  • Methods – the section where the authors describe how their experiment was conducted.
  • Results – the section where the authors present the data they collected. Tables and graphs often appear in this section.
  • Discussion – the section where the authors interpret the results and discuss what they mean.

What are secondary sources in the sciences?

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

How do I identify secondary articles in the sciences?

Look for these key terms:

  • Literature review
  • Review article
  • Systematic review – a type of literature review where authors create a systematic and comprehensive search strategy in order to retrieve all scientific literature that answers a particular research question. The authors will report what this search strategy was in their methods section.
  • Meta-analysis – a statistical analysis, often performed as part of a systematic review, that combines the results of multiple research studies.

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?

Look for these key terms:

  • 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.

Find articles in the sciences

Resources to Help with Research

Guide: find scholarly articlesVideo: Cite Your Sources: When / Why to Cite Video: Is this a Scholarly Journal Article

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