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SCI 306- Biology + Human Health Library Guide  

Last Updated: Jun 20, 2017 URL: Print Guide RSS Updates

Primary Sources Print Page

Primary versus Secondary Sources

DEFINITION An original object or document-the raw research or first-hand information. Comments on, interpretations of, or discussions about the primary or original source. Provide background information or compilations by synthesizing information gathered from other sources, usually secondary sources.
TIMING Primary sources usually come first in the timing of scholarly publication. Secondary sources usually come second in the timing of scholarly publication. Tertiary sources usually come third or last in the timing of scholarly publication.
TYPES • Letters & diaries
• Speeches and interviews
• First-hand news accounts
• Government reports
• Laws and legislation
• Creative writings (ex. novels or poetry)
• Results of scientific experiments
• Critical reaction to an
experiment or to a piece of literature
• Analysis of social, cultural or economic trends
• Review of the literature on a topic
• Overviews or background info
(ex. encyclopedias)
• Compilation of citations and
abstracts (ex. library
• Statistical handbooks
EXAMPLES  Psychology Student
(studying the psychological effects of the 9/11 Attacks on children)
Schuster, M. A., B. D."A National Survey of Stress Reactions After the September 11, 2001 Terrorist Attacks," New England Journal of Medicine, Vol. 345, No. 20, November 15, 2001, pp. 1507–1512. Alexander, G. (2007). International relations theory meets world politics. In Understanding the Bush Doctrine: Psychology and strategy in an age of terrorism (pp. 39–64). New York, NY, US: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group. • PsycINFO (Library database)
• Kazdin, A. E. (2000).
Encyclopedia of psychology.
Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.
Biology Student
(studying bioterrorism)
United States. (2003). Project Bioshield Act of 2003 report (to accompany H.R. 2122). Washington, D.C.: U.S. G.P.O. Alexander, D., & Klein, S. (2003, December). Biochemical terrorism: too awful to contemplate, too serious to ignore: subjective literature review. British Journal of Psychiatry, 183 (6), 491–497. • Biological Sciences (Library database)
• Pilch, R. F., & Zilinskas, R. A.
(2005). Encyclopedia of bioterrorism defense.
Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley-LISS.

Primary Sources in Science

In scientific research, primary sources include articles reporting on the results of original research, plus the data gathered by scientists.

Some clues to help you identify a scientific primary source: 

  • Most primary source research articles begin with an abstract.  
  • You will likely see a section which discusses results -- which may include tables or graphs. 
  • Look for references at the end of the article- often this will be a long list. 
  • Articles are usually more than 5 pages long.

For details on this distinction review the chart below, adapted from a research guide prepared by the Library at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.


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