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Finding Primary Sources in Science: Home

Identifying Primary Sources in the Sciences

What is a primary source in the sciences?

A primary source is information 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 scholarly articles include the following features

  • 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 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

Information adapted from Julie Arendt and Martha Roseberry, science research librarians, at Virginia Commonwealth University.


Make sure you limit your search to articles or scholarly articles.  Look for headings like "Abstract," "Materials and Method," or "Results."

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