Whether scientific research is basic science or applied science, scientists must share their findings for other researchers to expand and build upon their discoveries. Communication and collaboration within and between sub disciplines of science are key to the advancement of knowledge in science. For this reason, an important aspect of a scientist’s work is disseminating results and communicating with peers. Scientists can share results by presenting them at a scientific meeting or conference, but this approach can reach only the limited few who are present. Instead, most scientists present their results in peer-reviewed articles that are published in scientific journals.

In addition, important scientific work must be shared with people who do not read peer-reviewed articles in scientific journals. This means that scientific results must be rewritten using language that the general population understands.

Types of Sources

Whether conducting research in the social sciences, humanities (especially history), arts, or natural sciences, the ability to distinguish between primary and secondary source material is essential. Basically, this distinction illustrates the degree to which the author of a piece is removed from the actual event being described. This means whether the author is reporting information first hand (or is first to record these immediately following an event), or conveying the experiences and opinions of others—that is, second hand. In biology, the distinction would be between the person (or people) who conducted the research and someone who didn’t actually do the research, but is merely reporting on it.

Primary sources

These are contemporary accounts of an event, written by someone who experienced or witnessed the event in question. In general, these original documents (i.e., they are not about another document or account) are often diaries, letters, memoirs, journals, speeches, manuscripts, interviews, photographs, audio or video recordings, or original literary or theatrical works.

In science, a “primary source” or the “primary literature” refers to the original publication of a scientist’s new data, results, and conclusions. These articles are written for other experts in a specific scientific field.

You’ve probably done a writing assignment or other project during which you have participated in a peer review process. During this process, your project was critiqued and evaluated by people of similar competence to yourself (your peers). This gave you feedback on which to improve your work. Scientific articles typically go through a much more stringent peer review process before they are published in an academic journal. In scientific peer review, the article is reviewed (usually anonymously) by other experts in the specific field about which the paper is written. These peers are qualified individuals, often other experts in the same research area, who judge whether or not the scientist’s work is suitable for publication. This allows other scientists to critique experimental design, data, and conclusions before that information is published in an academic journal. Often, the scientists who did the experiment and who are trying to publish it are required to do additional work or edit their paper before it is published. The goal of the scientific peer review process is to ensure that published primary articles contain the best possible science.

There are many journals and the popular press that do not use a peer-review system. A large number of online open-access journals, journals with articles available without cost, are now available many of which use rigorous peer-review systems, but some of which do not. Results of any studies published in these forums without peer review are not reliable and should not form the basis for other scientific work. It is important to evaluate whether or not you are looking at a peer reviewed source before you decide if the information is credible.

Secondary sources

The function of a secondary source is to interpret the primary source. A secondary source can be described as at least one step removed from the event or phenomenon under review. Secondary source materials interpret, assign value to, conjecture upon, and draw conclusions about the events reported in primary sources. These are usually in the form of published works such as magazine articles or books, but may include radio or television documentaries, or conference proceedings.

Popular vs. Scholarly Sources

Broad range of topics, presented in shorter articles Specific, narrowly focused topics in lengthy, in-depth articles
Articles offer overview of subject matter; interpretation, rather than original research; sometimes contain feature articles and reports on current social issues and public opinion Articles often contain previously unpublished research and detail new developments in field
Intended to attract a general readership without any particular expertise or advanced education Intended for specialist readership of researchers, academics, students and professionals
Written by staff (not always attributed) or freelance writers using general, popular language Written by identified specialists and researchers in subject area, usually employing technical, subject-specific language and jargon
Edited and approved for publication in-house (not peer-reviewed) Critically evaluated by peers (fellow scholars)   in field for content, scholarly soundness, and academic value
Articles rarely contain references or footnotes and follow no specific format Well-researched, documented articles nearly always follow standard format:

abstract, introduction, literature review, methodology, results, conclusion, bibliography/references

Designed to attract eye of potential newsstand customers: usually filled with photographs or illustrations, printed on glossier paper Sober design: mostly text with some tables or graphs accompanying articles; usually little or no photography; negligible, if any, advertising; rarely printed on high-gloss paper
Each issue begins with page number ‘1’ Page numbers of issues within a volume (year) are usually consecutive (i.e., first page of succeeding issue is number following last page number of previous issue)
Presented to entertain, promote point of view, and/or sell products Intended to present researchers’ opinions and findings based on original research
Examples: Newsweek, Rolling Stone, Vogue Examples: Science, Nature, Journal of Microbial and Biochemical Technology

 In science, it is often extremely difficult to read and understand primary articles unless you are an expert in that specific scientific field. Secondary sources are typically easier to read and can give you the important information from a primary source, but only if the secondary source has interpreted the information correctly! It is always better to go to the primary source if possible because otherwise you are relying on someone else’s interpretation of the information. However, it is always better to use a source that you can read and understand rather than a source that you can’t. For this reason, it is very important to be able to identify credible secondary sources.


OpenStax, Biology. OpenStax CNX. May 27, 2016 http://cnx.org/contents/s8Hh0oOc@9.10:RD6ERYiU@5/The-Process-of-Science.


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MHCC Biology 112: Biology for Health Professions Copyright © 2019 by Lisa Bartee is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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