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Primary and Secondary Literature in the Sciences

What is the difference between a primary and secondary literature source?

What is Primary Literature?

Scientific knowledge is furthered through the publication of the results of original research projects. These publications, the scientists' own reporting of their original research, are known as primary literature. Since a primary article is the report of a given study, it will include the objective of the research, the methods used, the data and results obtained, a discussion of the results and a list of references to the literature used in the design and analysis of the research.

These publications are found in journals, government and other institutions' research reports, and occasionally in books.

It is important to read primary literature because it provides details of how the research was conducted, includes the data that were collected, and outlines the researcher's own interpretation of the work. Because the methodology of the study is described, a primary literature paper gives readers the opportunity to repeat the study or a variation of it. It also enables one to argue with the conclusions of the study since the data is there for all to consider.

Most scientific journals require a structured abstract as part of the publication which summarizes the content for a quick preview by those searching for literature.

Generally, the structured abstract will include the following headings:

  • Objective
  • Methods
  • Results
  • Conclusions

There are variations of the headings which are descriptive of the subject material, such as:

  • Context
  • Background
  • Aim
  • Findings
  • Interpretation

Some additional headings include:

  • Design
  • Population
  • Setting
  • Participants
  • Intervention (method)
  • Main Outcome Measures

What does a structured abstract look like?

Here is an example of a structured abstract, which allows for rapid content comprehension when searching for relevant research articles. (This is also an example of a primary literature source.)

Peer Review

Before a research paper is accepted for publication in the scientific literature, it is subjected to the "peer review" process.

This means that the publisher sends a copy of the submitted paper to one or more scientists working in the same field. These peer scientists read the paper and assess the quality of the research and the paper describing it.

They look at such factors as whether or not the design of the experiment was appropriate for the hypothesis being tested, whether sufficient data were collected, and whether the conclusions follow logically from the results of the experiment.

They also consider whether the overall topic was of sufficient importance and interest to warrant publication.

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