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Standards Amazing Shared Box Guide - no more reinventing the wheel!

What is a primary source in the sciences?

The concept of primary, secondary, and tertiary sources in the sciences differ slightly than other disciplines. However, like other field their status depends on the originality of the information presented and their proximity to the source of the information. The larger the distance the from the source, either due to time or authorship, the less likely it is to be a primary source. 

Examples of primary sources in the sciences: 

  • Journals or Periodicals 
  • Theses
  • Conferences
  • Reports
  • Patents 
  • Unrefined data sets 

Examples of Secondary Sources

  • Review Journals 
  • Review Articles
  • Textbooks 
  • Data Compilations
  • Article Indexes/Citations

Examples of Tertiary Sources

  • Encyclopedias
  • Almanacs
  • Fact books
  • Reference material

Information adapted from the University of Minnesota and the University of Louisville

Is it a primary source?

A primary source in the sciences differs than a primary source in the humanities. You might think of a primary source as being a diary, or a work of art, or a photograph. Which they are! But science is special!

In the sciences, primary sources are usually scholarly journal articles. These are articles outlining original research, or research that was developed, carried out, and documented by the authors of the article. You can often identify these articles by looking for a "methods" or "methodology" section that describes how the research or experiment was carried out, or many of these articles will identify themselves as an "original research article." 

While some scholarly sciences journals are primary sources, not all scholarly science journal articles are primary sources! 

Journal articles can also be review articles, opinion articles, or commentary. These types of articles will often be marked as such. They often will not have a methods/methodology section, or have a method/methodology section that doesn't describe an experiment or research. Skimming through the article and keeping a lookout for these markers is the best way to evaluate whether an article is suitable for your needs. 

Getting Started

Depending on the type of information you need, the Claremont Colleges Library has a wide variety of resources for you to get started on your research! 

If you are looking for a book or other resource held by the Claremont Colleges Library, or are generally browsing for works on a certain topic, the Library's Search is a great place to start. 

If you are beginning your research and need some background information, take a look at this list of reference sources for Fast Facts

If you are looking for articles on your topic, use a specific database to find resources specific to the subject. Take a look at this list of databases to find one on your discipline. 

And as always, feel free to Ask a Librarian if you need any assistance! 

What's in a Name?

Has your professor told you to use scholarly, peer-reviewed articles in your paper? Are you confused about the difference between a review article and a research article? The language that we use to talk about academic communication can be tricky, so let's break it down.

Academic/scholarly article

From the University of British Columbia,

"A scholarly publication is one in which the content is written by experts in a particular field of study - generally for the purpose of sharing original research or analyzing others' findings. Scholarly work will thoroughly cite all source materials used and is usually subject to "peer review" prior to publication. This means that independent experts in the field review, or "referee" the publication to check the accuracy and validity of its claims. The primary audience for this sort of work is fellow experts and students studying the field. As a result the content is typically much more sophisticated and advanced than articles found in general magazines, or professional/trade journals.

In brief, scholarly work is:

  • written by experts for experts
  • based on original research or intellectual inquiry
  • provides citations for all sources used
  • is usually peer reviewed prior to publication"

Peer Review

From Lloyd Sealy Library at John Jay College of Criminal Justice,

"In academic publishing, the goal of peer review is to assess the quality of articles submitted for publication in a scholarly journal. Before an article is deemed appropriate to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, it must undergo the following process:

  •  The author of the article must submit it to the journal editor who forwards the article to experts in the field. Because the reviewers specialize in the same scholarly area as the author, they are considered the author’s peers (hence “peer review”).
  •  These impartial reviewers are charged with carefully evaluating the quality of the submitted manuscript.
  •  The peer reviewers check the manuscript for accuracy and assess the validity of the research methodology and procedures.
  •  If appropriate, they suggest revisions. If they find the article lacking in scholarly validity and rigor, they reject it.

·     Because a peer-reviewed journal will not publish articles that fail to meet the standards established for a given discipline, peer-reviewed articles that are accepted for publication exemplify the best research practices in a field.

Research article

Research articles report the results of original research and places it in context of the larger body of knowledge in a given field. Research articles are published in scholarly, peer-reviewed journals.

From the University of Texas Libraries, "Research articles will usually contain:

  • a summary or “abstract”
  • a description of the research
  • the results they got
  • the significance of the results.

Research articles are not good places to find:

  • basic summaries
  • general introductions to a topic

They are the best way to access:

  • The most recent, “cutting edge” research
  • Authoritative information about older research"

Review article

From the University of Texas Libraries, "Review articles are an attempt by one or more writers to sum up the current state of the research on a particular topic. Ideally, the writer searches for everything relevant to the topic, and then sorts it all out into a coherent view of the “state of the art” as it now stands. Review Articles will teach you about:

  • the main people working in a field
  • recent major advances and discoveries
  • significant gaps in the research
  • current debates
  • ideas of where research might go next

Review Articles are virtual gold mines if you want to find out what the key articles are for a given topic. If you read and thoroughly digest a good review article, you should be able to “talk the talk” about a given topic. Unlike research articles, review articles are good places to get a basic idea about a topic."

What is a Review Article?

From the University of Texas Libraries, "Review articles are an attempt by one or more writers to sum up the current state of the research on a particular topic. Ideally, the writer searches for everything relevant to the topic, and then sorts it all out into a coherent view of the “state of the art” as it now stands."

Use the infographic below to find review articles in the Web of Science database.

What's Common Knowledge in the Sciences?

Royal Society of Chemistry Gold For Gold

The Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) launched a Gold for Gold initiative that provides RSC Gold subscribers with vouchers to publish papers as Gold Open Access (OA)*, free of charge, in RSC journals. As a RSC Gold subscriber, The Claremont Colleges Library has received vouchers that will offset the author processing charge (APC) for the RSC Journals. These vouchers are available on a first come first serve basis. If you intend to publish in these journals by December 2016, please contact Lydia Bello for details.

If you are interested in providing open access to your work - but are not interested in publishing in an RSC Journal -  you can deposit your work into Scholarship@Claremont, the Claremont Colleges’ OA Institutional Repository by sending your librarian your most recent CV and the submitted and/or accepted versions of your manuscripts. We’ll take it from there. The Claremont Colleges Library is interested in both collecting our faculty’s research and scholarship and understanding which journals are important for you to access and publish in.

For more information about Open Access, please contact Allegra Swift, Scholarly Communication Coordinator, or visit

*Open Access (OA) means unrestricted, online access to research and scholarship for reading and productive re-use, not impeded by any financial, organizational, legal or technical barriers.

Open Access improves the pace, efficiency and efficacy of research, and heightens the authors’ visibility, and thus the potential impact of their work. It removes structural and geographical barriers that hinder the free circulation of knowledge and therefore contributes to increased collaboration, ultimately strengthening scientific excellence and capacity building.