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BIO 205

Primary Sources

A primary source in the sciences is a work of original research, such as the results of an experiment, a clinical trial, or other studies. They may involve scientific findings, discoveries, and proof or disproof of a hypothesis.

Primary sources in the sciences generally take the form of a research article in a scientific scholarly journal.

To locate a scientific primary source in a scholarly journal, you can browse scientific databases, such as the ones listed in this guide. 

To identify a scientific primary source, check the abstract for discussion of data collection and analysis. If it's still unclear, look for a methods section detailing how original data was collected and analyzed. If you see words like "meta-analysis," "literature review," or "systematic review" in the abstract or title, it's likely to not be a work of original research and therefore not a primary source. Note: a study will include a review of literature, but it will have data collection and data analysis as the focus of the work.

Primary vs. Secondary Sources

To summarize, primary sources are the first publishing of a work of original research (as in an experiment and its results), and secondary sources are a second look at existing research through review, summarization, or critique. See below for more information.

Physical Science, Biology, and Medicine

  Primary Source Secondary Source
Distinguishing Features
  • Reports on an original experiment
  • Tends to be shorter
  • Has a 'methods' section that describes a single experiment under study.
  • Analyzes or re-examines other experiments
  • May use words like 'meta-analysis' or 'review' in teh title
  • Tends to be longer and cites many more sources
Examples Field notes, jaboratory notebooks, journal articles announcing new discoveries, medical trials Reviews, meta-analyses, journal articles which critique the research of other journal articles, journal articles which report on a pattern observed across many original experiments
Example Title Blumstein, Daniel T. "Flight-initiation distance in birds is dependent on intruder starting distance." The Journal of Wildlife Management 67.4 (2203): 852-57. Web.  Stankowich, Theodore, and Daniel T. Blumstein. "Fear in animals: a meta-analysis and review of risk assessment." Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences 272.1581 (2005): 2627-2634.