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Primary and Secondary Literature in the Sciences

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

Scentific Literature

In science, knowledge accumulates as individuals study phenomena in the natural world. These researchers base their studies on the information contributed in the past by others, and the results of the new studies provide new information or different interpretations of the subjects under investigation. Scientists share their work through the publication of the results of their original research projects. In this way, the new knowledge is available to all who have an interest in those subjects.

The Benefits of Understanding Scientific Literature

  • Reading scientific literature is one of the necessary components of scientific research.
  • Using scientific literature shows something about the social structure of the activity of scientists -- it illustrates the formal means by which scientists communicate with each other and with wider communities.
  • By reading scientific literature, you will see examples of the writing style by which scientists communicate.
  • The acquisition of library research skills will enable you to find scientific literature on subjects that interest you now and in the future.

When to use Primary and Secondary Literature

For most science course assignments you are expected to base your work on the primary scientific literature. Read these original sources of information.

Do not refer to a study that you are ready ABOUT in a primary source but have not read yourself. This is NOT an acceptable procedure.

You should make all efforts to read the additional study itself.

Secondary literature is useful for gaining a broad perspective on a topic or a synthesis of ideas about a topic and to find a bibliography of relevant sources

Secondary literature can be used in addition to primary literature, but not in place of it.

For instance, if you are reading a review article which refers to information in a primary research article, you should find that primary article and read it yourself

Begin your search

A good research strategy is to begin looking at secondary sources to gain an overview of the subject in question, locating references to other secondary and primary literature that are included in the bibliographies of the secondary sources.

Then you can proceed to the primary literature, using the bibliographies of these papers as well.

Possible Formats of the Literature

Scientific literature may take a variety of physical forms: print publications such as books or journal articles, electronic documents, web sites, reports, meeting abstracts, government documents, personal communications, etc.

In your scientific research you should consult a variety of these formats.

Credits & Acknowledgments

This Guide was created by Elizabeth Graboski, MLIS Intern. Content is based on the library guide "Biocite" by Sara Penhale, Science Librarian at the Wildman Library, Earlham University.

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