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Primary vs. Secondary Sources in the Sciences

Primary vs. Secondary Sources in the Sciences 

Primary Sources

When we speak of Primary source material in the Sciences, what we are basically talking about is original research -- the work researchers do in the laboratory and then write up and publish in formal lab reports and/or research articles that you will encounter in the Scientific Journals.

Primary sources provide:

  • A detailed description of experiments
  • References to other experiments and scientists in the field
  • Source material for latest findings

One finds Primary source material in the Academic Journals that cover specific disciplines or in published conference proceedings.

As Primary source material presents original research, the articles tend to be narrow in focus and difficult to read unless you are an expert in the specific subject area of the research. The target audience is other people in the same field that share the common terminology.

Primary sources are important in that they are the original source of new knowledge. Primary source articles are often cited or referred to in other articles -- sometimes a secondary source or sometimes other original articles.

Secondary Sources

In the sciences, secondary sources are those that discuss the original research of others. They often summarize, interpret, and analyze material found in primary source research. Often, a secondary source such as a science periodical or a trade magazine will be the first place you would hear about some new original research. These articles provide enough citation information so that you can track down the Primary source material. 

Secondary Sources provide context for the Primary Source material, giving readers:

  • Summaries of scientific work
  • Perspective
  • Facts

Some examples of Secondary Sources are:

  • Science periodicals like Scientific American or Natural History or the Science section of the New York Times
  • Review Articles in Scientific Journals
  • Annual Reviews
  • Websites like Science Daily

Secondary sources are written in language that is more accessible to a broader audience -- not just for those well-versed in a specific fieldAs they are not the original source of information, they lack the detailed description of the experiments and research that will be found in the Primary source.

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