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Primary Sources in the Sciences: Home

Primary Sources in the Sciences

What is a primary source in the sciences?

A primary source is information or literature about original research provided or written by the original researcher. Examples of primary sources include...

  • Experimental data
  • Laboratory notes
  • Conference Proceedings
  • Technical Reports
  • Patents
  • Some peer-reviewed scientific journal articles of original research

How can I identify a primary article?

In the primary article, the authors will write about research that they did and the conclusions they made. Some key areas in the article to look for are similar to those found in a lab report, including... 

  • A research problem statement, or description of what the researchers are trying to discover or determine with their research
  • Background information about previously published research on the topic
  • Methods where the author tells the reader what they did, how they did it, and why
  • Results where the author explains the outcomes of their research 
     

Sometimes scholarly journals will include review articles, which summarize published research on a topic but do not contain new results from original research. Even though these sources are scholarly, they are NOT primary articles.

 

How do I know if my source is scholarly?

Along with being a primary source, it is frequently important that you know if your source is scholarly and appropriate for academic research. Some traits of scholarly articles are...

  • Citations to work done by others
  • Language is often serious and technical
  • Images are usually charts, graphs, or otherwise informative, rather than glossy photographs or advertisements
  • Authors' names are given, along with their affiliations with a university, research institutions, etc.
  • Date of publication is given, frequently along with the date on which the articles was submitted for peer review
  • "About" or "instructions for authors" link on the journal's Web site indicates that the journal is peer reviewed or describes its peer review process

Finding Primary Articles in the Sciences

The best place to look for primary, scientific articles are the databases licensed by USMA Library. The A-Z Database List can be searched by subject; for example, Chemistry and Life Science databases can be found here. Search also for other science databases by academic area. These databases contain millions of articles, and most of them are primary articles from scholarly journals.


Many of these databases allow you to refine your search to only articles or peer-reviewed journals; however, you still need to look at the article to determine if it is scholarly and contains original research.

Secondary Sources in the Sciences

Secondary sources in the sciences are about the research and discoveries of other people, usually with the goal of providing an overview of the topic that allows readers to become familiar with a topic quickly.

Some examples of secondary sources are...

  • Review articles
  • Scientific encyclopedias
  • Textbooks

This LibGuide is courtesy of Judy Arendt, VCU Libraries

Information Literacy Librarian, Liaison to Chemistry and Life Science; Center for Molecular Science

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