Skip to Main Content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

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

Suggest an edit to this guide

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.