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Use this guide to find books, articles, databases, and other resources for research in Biology.

Scholarly Sources: Which are Primary and Which are Secondary?

Primary - In scientific writing, when a scientist describes their own personal work or original research study it is a primary source. Primary sources include research articles, dissertations, technical reports, or conference papers.  Primary sources are written for a specific audience (usually other scientists or researchers in the field) and to disseminate research findings that allows other scientists to refute or build upon that work.

Secondary - Secondary sources are articles that critique, discuss, or analyze a study. Overall, secondary sources talk about the research conducted by someone else.  Secondary sources include encyclopedias, textbooks, and review articles.

If your professor has not specified which sources you should be looking for, feel free to ask.

Paraphrased from Writing in Biology: A Student Handbook for Writing in Biology, Karen Knisely, 2013, 5th edition, W.H. Freeman and Co


  • Which of these two articles is primary and which is secondary?
  • What elements of each helps you to decide?

Steps for Reading a Scholarly Article

Step One: Write down you research topic or question

Establish what your research topic or research question is. Even a very broad topic gives you a starting point and will help keep you from getting lost and feeling overwhelmed.

Step Two:  Read the Abstract

Once you find an article that might relate to your topic, read the abstract! The abstract summarizes the purpose of the article. As you read the abstract, ask yourself: does this relate to your topic or question? If yes, then save the article for later by downloading the PDF, saving it in a citation manager like Zotero, or copying and pasting the citation information in a document. You do not need to read the entire article in that moment. Focus on finding a handful of articles that seem useful. 

Step Three: Skim the Article 

Once you have an article that you think will be useful, skim it! Read the introduction and the conclusion/discussion sections of the article. While reading, ask yourself: does this article provide you with new information about your topic or question? Does it provide a perspective on your topic you haven't seen before? If yes, then skim the other sections of an article to get a better sense of how this article relates to your topic. If no, then put the article aside. You likely don't need multiple articles that cover the same basic information.

Step Four: Close Read the Article

Once you are sure an article is going to be useful to your research, then take the time to close read the article. Close reading is getting up close and personal with the text. While you're reading, take notes about the article, even if it's just summarizing the content. This will help you engage more fully with the article. The more work you do to identify key ideas or bits of information while reading, the less work you will have to do when it comes time to write your paper. 

Helpful note taking styles:

  • Print the article and highlight, circle and otherwise mark while you read (for a PDF, most PDF readers will let you do some version of this).
  • Take notes on the sections, for example, in the margins of the article. 
  • Highlight important quotes or terms addressing different themes or sections of your argument in a different color.
  • Summarize the main or key points in a separate document.

Step Five:  Look at the References 

While this step could fall anywhere in this list, once you have an article that really fits your topic don't forget to look at the references. The references will identify other articles on the topic and can lead you to other sources for you paper. The author has already done a lot of the work in listing key literature on the topic for you. 

Parts of a Scholarly Article

Scholarly articles may often seem unapproachable, but they are really organized in a manner to make identifying a useful article easier for researchers. Scholarly articles are very formulaic in their constructions, knowing this formula makes reading them and identifying useful articles easier.  Almost all articles are constructed using the following ingredients. 

  1. Abstract: A summary of the main points of the article that usually provides the main question the author investigated, the key results of the author's work, and the author's conclusions. 
  2. Introduction: Sets out the author's purpose, what questions they set out to answer, and background on the topic. This section also sets out the author's thesis or argument and will explain why the author's work is important to a field or different from other work done on the topic.  
  3. Literature Review: Not every article has a literature review; sometimes this will be part of the introduction. This section summarizes other research done on a topic and what questions are still to be answered. 
  4. Methodology (Methods and Materials): This section discusses how the author preformed their research or study. This should include enough detail that someone else could replicate their study. If this section is not present it is a good indicator that the article is a secondary source.
  5. Results: In this section, the author lays out all of the data or findings from their study. This could include data tables or visualizations. The author will highlight the most critical pieces of data they found that support their thesis/ argument.  
  6. Discussion/Analysis: This is where the author will lay out their argument about what their results mean. 
  7. Conclusion: This section usually focuses on connecting the author's study and results to the bigger picture. Typically the author will also discuss the questions that are still unanswered about their topic. 
  8. References: The list of sources used by the author in their research.