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GEOL 2377: Physical Geography and Geomorphology

What are Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources

Primary sources are original research.  They are written by the person (or people) who are directy involved (or directly observing) with something.  An example would be a published peer-reviewed journal article written by a researcher describing the results of his/her experiment. Other examples include theses and conference presentations and posters.

Secondary sources report on the results or evaluate the results from primary sourcesFor example, a researcher might write a review article on the results of ten primary research articles summarizing the findings in that field.  Or a writer might write a book on a particular scientific topic and they use sources from a variety of places.

Tertiary sources summarize information from primary and secondary sources.  The most common examples of these types of sources are textbooks, factbooks, and encyclopedias.

Peer Review

What is peer review?

Peer review is a process where research is evaluated by other experts in the field before being published. Well respected journals require primary research articles to go through the process of being reviewed, typically by more than one researcher.  These peer reviewers may send the article back to the author(s) and ask them to conduct additional experiments before the research can be published. 

When looking for research articles it is important to look for journals that require peer review. These articles are more reliable.

For a quick overview see this webpage.

Reading Primary Research Articles

Do you need help reading and evaluating primary sources?

A primary source is an original document often created by someone directly involved in the endeavor being reported.  For example, a scientist writing about his research in an academic journal.  You might have trouble reading scientific articles at first.  They take skill to read. Try the following suggestions:

The easiest way to approach reading these research articles is to focus on certain sections first and not in the order in which they are presented. Information on the different sections of a primary scientific article can be found here. 

Here are some tips to help you approach your reading:

  • Start with reading the abstract and introduction
    • These will give you a general idea about what the article is about
  • If you don't know what a word means, look it up
  • Jump to the conclusion/discussion
    • This section will give you a broad view of what they found and what they think it means
  • Look and think about the figures and charts
    • Do the figures back up the claims made in the conclusion?  Are there any issues?
  • Read the results and methods
    • Think about whether the figures match with the results and whether the claims in the conclusion are backed up by the evidence presented.
  • Use the references to find more articles and resources!

Here are some tips to help you approach evaluating:

  • Do the results and methods support the conclusions?  Look at the figures. 
  • Are the researchers making accurate claims based on what the figures tell you? 
  • If there are issues, what are they? 
  • If there are issues, can you figure out what results the researcher needed to see in order to have made the conclusion they made?
  • Other things to consider:
    • What journal was the article published in?  Is it a well respected journal? 
    • Is the article peer reviewed (the journal should indicate this)?

Formating a Primary Research Article

Primary scientific research articles are structured differently than a normal research paper you might write in your other classes.  Typically a primary article will have:

  • Title
  • Author(s)
  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Materials and Methods
  • Results
  • Discussion
  • References

Tables and graphs, when available, are included in the paper.  Sometimes there are also keywords provided and other small sections of the paper. Different journals may have different rules on what sections to include and how to format sections and figures.

This page, from Nature, goes over how to write a research article.

This page, from Plant Cell, gives you an example of a published research article.  Notice the format.  Disclaimer: This is the format for that particular journal.  Follow the format your professor requires of you.  This article from Plant Cell is being used only as an example of what a scientific journal article CAN look like.