Skip to Main Content

Life, Society & Drugs: Appropriate Sources

This guides shows how to identify appropriate sources for Salt Lake Community College's Life, Society & Drugs course

Understanding Primary Research in the Sciences

Primary sources in the sciences are typically academic journals. In them, the authors present their "primary" or original research. You may have heard of primary sources before in a history class, and the same idea applies here. A primary source is all about proximity. The authors should have firsthand experience with the content. In the sciences, that means that they conducted the research themselves.

Identifying Primary Research Articles

Here are five common components of primary research articles in the sciences. Check your source for these to help determine if you are looking at a primary source.

1. Written by experts who did the research

In a primary source, the authors report on research they conducted themselves. The best way to determine this is to read the introduction of the paper where the authors will explain what they are presenting. If the authors report only about someone else’s research or a different study, it is not primary. 

2. Reports on original research

This is closely tied to the first component. Did the authors of the article study something "new?" Did they delve into an issue to explore it further? Look for keywords in the abstract and introduction that tell you that the authors studied something. Keywords to look for include: "measured," "analyzed," and "investigated."

3. Describes how the authors did their study

A primary research article will describe the methods used to conduct the study. It ought to be detailed enough that the study could be replicated. Many primary research articles follow a common format with particular section headings. One of these is "methodology" or "methods." The methodology section is where the authors will explain how they did their study. Looking for this section heading is a good way to check for this factor. Even if this specific heading is missing, your article should still explain this to be primary.

4. Describes the study's results

The article should also clearly explain the results or outcomes of the research. Often you will see statistics, graphs, and/or tables in the article. These depictions of data in primary research articles will differ from the "decorative" images you may see in popular sources. Headings to look at for this factor include "results," "findings," and "discussion."

5. Always includes references

Finally, your primary research article will always include references. These could look like footnotes, a references section, or a works cited at the end of the article. Many articles that are not primary research articles - and even some that are not scholarly - include references. Do not make your decision of whether your article is primary or not based on this factor alone.

Primary Source Examples

Secondary Source Examples

How can I learn more about identifying primary sources?

To learn more about primary research articles in the sciences, watch the University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries' short video (1 min, 37 sec) on the topic.