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Understanding Scientific Literature: Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources

Primary Sources

What are primary sources?

In the sciences primary sources are original research or data. Primary sources can include any of the following publications 

  • Journal Articles -- Journal articles can be primary sources if they contain original research, but keep in mind that not all journal articles are primary sources.
  • Reports -- Reports are publications on research that are published independently of a journal. They are often published by governments or companies.
  • Theses and Dissertations -- Theses and Dissertations are the original research of an academic working on a degree. 
  • Conference Proceedings -- Conference Proceedings are a collection of papers that have been presented at a conference. 
  • Published Data -- Data can be considered a primary source, as it is the product of original research.

Why use primary sources?

 Primary sources are a researchers firsthand account of their research. They provide an in depth view into how the research was conducted, and may contain supplemental materials like questionnaires used. A summary of a study or experiment in a book or review paper may not discuss all the findings, and you can gain more insight into a particular topic or issue by looking at the primary sources. 

How to find primary sources:

Resources for finding primary sources include: 

  • Databases and Indexes -- The exact database or index you choose to search will depend on the discipline you are searching in. 
  • Review Papers -- Review papers are often synthesized from other researchers to give an in-depth understanding of the current state of knowledge on a topic. If you have found a review paper when you are looking for a research paper don't fear! If the review paper is on the write topic it will cite plenty of research papers on your topic of interest. 

Secondary Sources

What are secondary sources?

In the sciences secondary sources analyze, interpret, summarize, or evaluate the findings of primary sources. Secondary sources can include any of the following publications: 

  • Journal review articles -- A review article summarizes past research on a given topic. Review articles can range from highly intensive systematic or integrative reviews or less rigorous literature reviews.
  • Textbooks -- The information in textbooks in the sciences is the product of past research.  
  • Monographs -- A monograph is a book-length scholarly publication dedicated to a single topic. 

Secondary sources can save you time by providing information on the current state of knowledge on a given topic, and also as a way to find primary resources. If you are interested to know what are important, seminal papers in on a topic look at what papers are cited in a textbook on that topic. Review papers can give you in-depth information on a particular research area. Secondary resources are also often less technical than primary resources. 

How to find secondary sources:

Resources for finding secondary sources 

  • Databases and Indexes -- Databases and indexes are particularly useful for finding review articles.  
  • The Library Catalog or Ram Search -- The library catalog or Ram Search will help you locate books on the topic you are interested in. 

Tertiary Sources

What are tertiary sources?

In the sciences tertiary resources are synthesized from primary and secondary resources. They usually provide summaries on the current state of knowledge. Tertiary sources can include the following publications: 

  • Encyclopedias
  • Dictionaries 
  • Factbooks 
  • Almanacs 

Why use tertiary sources?

Tertiary sources can be viewed as a jumping off point for your own research. They provide succinct summaries on topics, and can be a good way to familiarize yourself with the terminology on a topic before you begin searching the databases.

How to find tertiary sources:

Resources for finding tertiary sources include: 

  • The Library Catalog or Ram Search -- Keep in mind a majority of our encyclopedias are in the reference room. 
  • LibGuides and the Library Website -- We have a number of digital encyclopedias. Check the LibGuide for your field to see what digital encyclopedias we might offer!