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UMW Libraries
Simpson Library | Special Collections

Physics: Primary Sources

Primary Sources in the Databases

Every science database includes a mix of primary and secondary resources.  While the databases allow you to easily separate scholarly sources from popular sources, it does not do this for primary and secondary types of publications.  To differentiate between primary vs. secondary, you must visibly examine each item to ensure it was written by the scientists that performed the original experiment.

Use some of the criteria listed in the box below to make that determination.

Identifying Primary Sources (Scholarly)

A primary source in the sciences is usually a report on the results of an experiment by the person or group who performed it. They are usually published as scientific articles. Primary scientific articles contain high-level vocabulary and will usually present original data, often displayed in tables or charts.

The scientist reports the results of his or her own research. It is not a comment on someone else’s research, although the scientist may refer to someone else’s work in the body of the paper to illustrate the points he/she is trying to prove or disprove. Most scientific journals that are peer-reviewed are likely to contain primary literature. Peer-review means that a panel of experts will review all articles submitted for publication before they are accepted by the journal.

In a primary research article, you will typically see many or all of the following elements clearly presented:

  • Methods used to conduct the experiment
  • Materials and equipment used in the experiment
  • Results of the experiment (data) - may include tables, charts, graphs, figures, photographs
  • Discussion of the results
  • Conclusion
  • References/Bibliography

The presence of these components indicate that the author is presenting new data and ideas.

Types of Primary Sources (Sciences)

  • Scholarly articles that present brand new research
  • Conference papers or proceedings
  • Datasets
  • Dissertations
  • Diaries
  • Interviews
  • Lab Notebooks
  • Studies or Surveys
  • Technical Reports

Primary Sources in 90 Seconds