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Chemistry: Primary and Secondary Sources

Chemistry materials useful for UNBC chemistry students

Definition & Characteristics of Sources

Definitions of what is primary or secondary differs across the disciplines. For the sciences, this is how we would define the different types of sources:

Primary source literature in the sciences:

  • documents the results of original research
  • is written by those who have conducted the research
  • includes firsthand information about their methodologies, data, results, or conclusions.

Secondary source literature in the sciences:

  • summarizes, compares, critiques, or interprets the primary literature.

Tertiary sources in the sciences:

  • are collections of primary and/or secondary sources

Characteristics of primary sources in the sciences include:

  • Report original research, ideas, or scientific discoveries for the first time
  • Report results/findings/data from experiments or research studies
  • May also be referred to as primary research, primary articles, or research studies
  • DO NOT include meta-analyses, systematic reviews, or literature reviews - these are secondary sources
  • Are frequently found in peer-reviewed or scholarly journals
  • Should explain the research methodology used (randomized controlled trial, etc)
  • Frequently include methods, results, and discussion sections
  • Are factual, not interpretive

To find primary source literature in the sciences, use library databases. Subject guides (like this one) can help you identify databases for the discipline you are interested in.

Note: The library databases may contain references to both primary and secondary literature. You will need to examine each resource carefully to determine which one it is.

Primary and Secondary Sources (in the sciences)

Examples of Sources

Primary Sources Secondary Sources
Research articles published in scholarly, peer-reviewed journals Summaries, critiques, or interpretations of primary literature
Clinical trials Review articles
Interviews Textbooks (can also be a tertiary source)
Correspondence Dictionaries (can also be a tertiary source)
Patents Directories (can also be a tertiary source)
Lab notebooks Encyclopedias (can also be a tertiary source)
Data sets  
Theses & dissertations  
Technical Reports  


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