Primary sources are products of original research. Primary sources are the first appearance of research findings (publications and presentations) and often provide a description of how the original research was conducted. In the sciences, these often include data sets and results found from empirical observations and experiments. Primary sources form the basis for further research and interpretations on a subject as new ideas may not be fully refined or validated within the original study (ex. a secondary source uses a primary source to validate and interpret results).
Secondary sources are accounts written after an event or original research has taken place to interpret, discuss, and evaluate a primary source. They tend to summarize existing knowledge so can be used to compare different ideas and theories over time. Since a secondary sources include commentary, the context of the writing is important to consider when evaluating the value of the source to your research.
|Subject||Primary Source||Secondary Source||Tertiary Source|
|Biology||Case study of Zika patient||Review article about Zika||Encyclopedia entry on Zika|
|Chemistry||Chemical patent||Book about chemical reactions||Table of related reactions|
|Agriculture||Results from a scientific GMO study||Journal article about GMOs||Encyclopedia entry on GMOs|
Source: Virginia Tech University Libraries. Primary, secondary, and tertiary sources.
Popular and Scholarly Sources
In addition to identifying sources as primary, secondary, or tertiary, sources can also be classified as popular or scholarly. Scholarly sources tend to be peer-reviewed (a rigorous editing process in which experts verify the information). To start thinking about the types of sources we use when we look for information, let's think about the author, the intended audience, and the publishing process.
Use the tabs below to explore the differences between popular and scholarly sources.
Popular vs. Scholarly Sources
Imagine the types of magazines and newspapers that you would find at a bookstore or in the grocery store. We refer to these types of periodicals as "popular sources"; they are geared to reach a more general audience and written in
In contrast to popular sources, scholarly sources are written primarily by scientists, for scientists. The goal of a scholarly source is to communicate new scientific research in the context of past research. The language in scholarly sources is often technical and publishing often follows a rigorous editing and approval process making the final product peer-reviewed.
Examples could include articles, reviews, conference papers, grey literature, books, etc. Scholarly journal titles include: Nature, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, ACS journals. Visit some of the biology databases below to search and browse for scholarly articles.
Verify Peer-Reviewed Sources
Access Ulrichsweb with the link below to verify information about a journal or publication: