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Primary and Secondary Literature in the Sciences

Category: Primary sources

Purpose: General Interest

Audience(s): Undergraduate student

Primary Literature

Scientists advance scientific knowledge through the publication their original research results. Publication of a scientist’s results is known as primary literature. In general, most primary literature follows a pattern containing an abstract, the authors’ names and affiliations, an introduction, a methods/materials section, results, discussion, conclusion and reference list. Most of primary scientific literature comes in the form of a journal article, where each article represents one consistent theme of experimentation and results. Because the methodology is described, primary literature provides the opportunity for others to duplicate, repeat or extend the research protocols. Examples of primary sources include journal papers, conference papers, technical reports and thesis and dissertations.

Secondary Literature

When scientists integrate, condense or summarize results from primary literature into review articles or books, this represents secondary literature. They are extremely useful in providing a broad overview of a field and usually provide more background information and less technical methodology. Secondary literature usually has no abstract and the data, figures or images are taken from other sources. Examples of secondary sources include reviews, monographs, books, treatises, and manuals.


Primary resources are usually vetted through other researchers who are familiar with the topic. This is the process of peer-review. This lends credence and authority to a publication. Peer-review is not a process for detecting fraud but a way of ensuring that scientists are reading quality work from other researchers. [NOTE: Do not confuse peer-review and a review article. Peer-review is a process that a particular article will undergo and is a designation given to a particular journal. A review article is an article that represents a summary of a particular topic and is a designation given to an article.]

Comparison between Primary and Secondary Literature Table.

Criterion Primary Literature Secondary Literature
Peer Review Primary literature is peer-reviewed

May or may not be peer-reviewed

Title A brief technical statement

Usually broader in scope

Focus Narrow and specific – may be just one experiment

A broad overview

Abstract Usually

Not usually

Introduction to Topic Yes and may specifically have a literature review


Methods Section Yes and hopefully detailed

Not usually

Results Section Yes

Not usually

Data in Figures and Tables Yes

Can contain but is usually referenced from another source

Discussion Section Yes

The whole paper can be seen as a discussion

Literature Cited Always

May or may not have

The Form of Publication Usually an article but can be a government document, conference report (in print or online)

May take any form but is usually a review article or a book (in print or online)

Example Journals Journal of Ecology

Science News, American Scientists, Scientific American

Journals with both Primary and Secondary Literature

Nature, Science

Primary articles are labeled ‘research’ or ‘report’ and secondary articles are labeled ‘review’ or ‘news’.


Examples of Primary Sources in the Sciences

  • Journal articles
  • Technical reports
  • Conference papers or proceedings
  • Thesis & dissertations
  • Patents
  • Lab notebooks (may not be published)
  • Field notes (may not be published)
  • Specimens

Examples of Secondary Sources in the Sciences

  • Books
  • Dictionaries
  • Directories
  • Encyclopedias
  • Handbooks
  • Government Policy
  • Law and Legislation
  • Monographs
  • Public Opinion
  • Reviews
  • Social Policy
  • Tables

Getting Started

Begin by looking for secondary literature. Most databases (electronic collections of journal articles that are searchable) will allow you to filter your results to look for review articles. This is helpful because it provides context to your searching. Understand that the Library has paid millions of dollars for resources so searching our databases will provide you with information and access that you cannot always get through Google. If you use information from a website make sure you provide the reference information for that site. Decide on a citation style and stay consistent. This is where an online Reference Manager like Mendeley ( and Zotero ( can be very helpful. Remember these tools are not fool proof and you will have to read over any reference list generated for you.


Page Owner: Fiona Inglis

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Last Updated: September 11, 2023 10:31am