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Biological Sciences Writing: Primary Sources

What is a PRIMARY SOURCE?

A primary source is a document or physical object written or created during the time under study, present during an experience or time period and offers an inside view of a particular event.

What are they? where to find them?

Types of primary sources include:
 - ORIGINAL DOCUMENTS (excerpts or translations acceptable): Diaries, speeches, manuscripts, letters, interviews, news film footage, autobiographies, official records 

 - CREATIVE WORKS: Poetry, drama, novels, music, art 

 - RELICS OR ARTIFACTS: Pottery, furniture, clothing, buildings

Examples include:
 - Diary of Anne Frank
 - The Constitution of Canada - Canadian History
 - A journal article reporting NEW research or findings
 - Weaving and pottery - Native American history
 - Plato's Republic - Women in Ancient Greece 

Search by keyword for Primary Sources in the Library Catalog
for your topic and add one of the words below: (these are examples of words that would identify a source as primary)

  • charters
  • correspondence
  • diaries
  • early works
  • interviews
  • manuscripts
  • oratory
  • pamphlets
  • personal narratives
  • sources
  • speeches
  • letters
  • documents

SCIENCE Primary Sources

PRIMARY LITERATURE
is the original publication of a scientist's new data, results, and theories, original research methods or findings for the first time.

A newspaper account written by a journalist who was present at the event he or she is describing is a primary source (an eye-witness, first-hand account), and may also be primary "research".

Rule of thumb for evaluating a scientific article as a primary source is that it has a "Materials and Methods" section.

  • Journal articles may be primary literature, there are many articles published which are not primary literature, particularly review articles, which do not report new findings but review known data.
  • Some websites constitute primary literature (here, here and here, for example) which include credible primary data. Note "primary" is not an indicator of the quality of the item (see Retraction Watch); for that we use peer reviewed, and to a lessor extent, the designation academic / scholarly.

SECONDARY LITERATURE:
does not present new research but provides a compilation or evaluation of previously presented material.
Such as:
 - A scientific article summarizing research or data, such as in Annual Review of Genetics, or Biological Reviews
 - An encyclopedia entry and entries in most other Reference books
 - A textbook.
 - review articles (which include reviews of the literature)
 - most scholarly or academic books that repeat information that is already published.
 - most popular periodical publications (magazines, trade journals, newspapers) are usually considered tertiary literature, they are repeat information that already been published and are usually written for a non-technical audience .

If one of the experts interviewed in the Mother Jones article published a study in JAMA (The Journal of the American Medical Association) documenting for the first time the effect that handguns have on youth mortality rates, only the JAMA article would be considered primary research.

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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