Answered By: Library Staff Last Updated: Mar 22, 2016 Views: 10465
If you are looking for Primary Sources in history, please see our FAQ item for that.
A rule of thumb used on this campus for evaluating whether or not a scientific article is a primary source is that it has a "Materials and Methods" section. If it has such a section, it is primary. If you are assigned to just get a few primary articles, that will probably work for you. Just search for articles and examine them for that section. However, if you need to do more serious research, read on:
In the sciences, a primary literature is the original publication of a scientist's new data, results, and theories. We have no direct mechanisms in our search products that filter for these, so it is a matter of judgement as to whether or not a source is primary. Journal articles are the main format in which primary literature is found, but there are many articles published in scholarly / academic journals which are not primary literature, particularly review articles, which do not report new findings but review what is already known. Also, there are some websites which constitute primary literatrure (here, here and here, for example) which are full of credible primary data and are not likely to be published in journal article or even book form. Note that being "primary" is in itself no indicator of the quality of the item (see here and here ); for that we use peer reviewed, and to a lessor extent, the designation academic / scholarly.
The rule of thumb listed above (does it have a "Materials and Methods" section?) will work for most of the articles you will come across. There are some exceptions to that rule, however. The best thing is to use your judgement.
Secondary literature includes review articles (which include reviews of the literature) textbooks, and most scholarly or academic books (that repeat information that is already published). The vast majority of popular periodical publications (magazines, trade journals, newspapers) are usually considered tertiary literature, in that they are repeating information that has already been published and they are usually written for a non-technical audience .
Note that the vast majority of empirical articles (a term used in Education and Social Sciences) are probably primary literature, but not all empirical articles are primary.
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