Primary Sources & Secondary Sources
- Journal articles contain original research and data that must pass a rigorous peer review process before the article will be published for the public to read.
- Scientists consider journal articles the primary source of information for scientific research.
- Newspapers, magazines and documentaries are considered secondary sources of scientific information because they summarize the results and findings of journal articles.
Finding Primary Sources
Primary sources are articles written by scientists and engineers and published in a journal. Journal articles are a full description of scientists’ original research and contain an abstract, introduction, materials & methods, results and discussion. Journal articles are only published after they have successfully passed through a peer-review process prior to being accepted for publication. Rejected articles are not published and therefore the public never reads the article. High-impact journals (i.e., those journals considered highly influential in their particular field of research) are very selective about what articles they publish in their journal. Such journals have high rejection rates. For example, a journal may only accept 25% of all the articles that they receive for publication. The remaining 75% are rejected during the peer-review process, never published and thus never read by the public. This selective process increases the quality of the work and ensures that only the best research is published and read by the public.
There are two ways to find and read primary source journal articles.
- The “old-fashioned way” of going into a library and physically finding and reading the journal article inside the library.
- The “Internet approach”, which is the method that most people use today. This entails using a computer, connecting to the internet and remotely searching databases for an electronic copy of the journal article. The person is then able to download and read the article.
Some articles will be free to download and some articles will require a fee or subscription to the journal before you will be able to download an article. The good news for university students is that they can freely access and download articles from hundreds to thousands of journals through their university library. This service is often included as part of a student’s tuition and fees. Check with your library to see which journals you can access.
There are dozens of databases and search engines that can be used to find published journal articles.
The web-based search engine, Google Scholar is also gaining favor due to its large capacity and ease of use. Because each search engine has its own limitations, it is always best to use multiple search engines to find journal articles. This will allow you to find more articles published by a wider variety of journals.
Finding Secondary Sources
Secondary sources are books, newspapers, magazines, video documentaries and podcasts that focus on the research contained within primary source journal articles. Secondary sources provide summaries, interpretations and evaluations of primary source journal articles. They are reviewed by editors or producers prior to publication (e.g., book, magazine, newspaper) or release (e.g., documentary film, podcast). The primary purpose of a secondary source is to inform and educate the public about new discoveries, findings and observations that scientists make during the course of their research. Secondary sources are typically published second, after the primary source is published. Secondary sources are easier to read and understand (compared to primary source journal articles) because much of the scientific jargon that was contained in the original journal article has been removed. This is done to appeal to a wider audience and make scientific discoveries and findings more accessible to the general public.
Finding secondary sources is easier than finding primary source journal articles because secondary sources are so widely available. These can be found on the internet, television, newspaper stands, libraries, coffee shops, trains, planes and basically anywhere where you find people. Secondary sources that have an established reputation of reporting facts in an unbiased and straightforward manner, checking these facts and correcting any errors are viewed as credible sources and typically have a large circulation and high readership.