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GEOL 330- Professor Jaecks (Spring 2020): Primary vs Secondary Sources

Primary vs Secondary Sources in the Sciences

What is a primary source in the sciences?

A primary source is information or literature about original research provided or written by the original researcher. Examples of primary sources include...

  • Experimental data
  • Laboratory notes
  • Interviews
  • Technical reports 
  • Scientific experiments
  • Patents

How can I identify a primary article?

In the primary article, the authors will write about research that they did and the conclusions they made. Some key areas in the article to look for are similar to those found in a lab report including... 

  • A research problem statement, or description of what the researchers are trying to discover or determine with their research,
  • Background information about previously published research on the topic,
  • Methods where the author tells the reader what they did, how they did it, and why,
  • Results where the author explains the outcomes of their research 

Sometimes scholarly journals will include review articles, which summarize published research on a topic but do not contain new results from original research. Even though these sources are scholarly, they are NOT primary articles.

How do I know if my source is scholarly?

Along with being a primary source, it is frequently important that you know if your source is scholarly and appropriate for academic research. Some traits of scholarly articles are...

  • Citations to work done by others
  • Language is often serious and technical
  • Images are usually charts, graphs, or otherwise informative, rather than glossy photographs or advertisements
  • Authors' names are given, along with their affiliations with university, research institutions, etc.
  • Date of publication is given, frequently along with the date on which the articles was submitted for peer review
  • "About" or "instructions for authors" link on the journal's Web site indicates that the journal is peer reviewed or describes its peer review process

Content source: Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries

Examples of Primary & Secondary Sources

Primary Source materials document original work.

The following are examples of the types of information contained in scientific primary sources:

  • Reports of scientific discoveries
  • Results of experiments
  • Results of clinical trials

Primary Sources materials tend to be published in scholarly scientific journals, like the Journal of Applied Physiology.

These types of articles tend to describe the specific instance of a test or series of tests, often on human and non-human animals.


This study sought to determine whether participants in taijiquan classes would report increases in mindfulness greater than that of a comparison group, and whether changes in mindfulness were associated with improvements in mood, perceived stress, self-regulatory self-efficacy, and sleep quality. The study design was quasi-experimental with repeated measures. The study was set in a midsized public university. Students aged 18-48 years old enrolled in 15-week courses of either taijiquan (n=76) or special recreation (control group, n=132). Chen-style taijiquan classes were offered 2 times per week for 50 minutes each time. Self-report of mindfulness (Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire), mood (Four Dimensional Mood Scale), perceived stress (Perceived Stress Scale), self-regulatory self-efficacy (Self-regulatory Self-Efficacy Scale), and sleep quality (Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index). Increases in total mindfulness scores occurred only in the taijiquan group, not in the control group. All well-being variables showed a pattern of improvement in the taijiquan group, with either stability or decline over time in the control group. Increases in mindfulness were significantly correlated with improvements on all well-being measures and with sleep quality. Relative to a recreation control group, taijiquan classes for college students are associated with increased mindfulness and improved sleep quality, mood, and perceived stress, but not self-regulatory self-efficacy. Randomized control design studies are needed to substantiate the causal role of taijiquan exercise in the development of mindfulness and associated improvements in well-being.

Caldwell, K., Emery, L., Harrison, M., & Greeson, J. (2011). Changes in mindfulness, well-being, and sleep quality in college students through taijiquan courses: A cohort control study. Journal of alternative and complementary medicine, 17(10), 931–938. doi:10.1089/acm.2010.0645.

Content Source: University of Nebraska-Kearney Library

Secondary Source - Example

Secondary source materials contain commentary on, or discussion about, primary sources.

The following are examples of the types of information contained in scientific secondary sources:

  • Analysis and interpretation of research results
  • Analysis and interpretation of scientific discoveries

An example of a journal which contains secondary source materials is the Journal of Nutrition.

These types of articles often generalize and interpret the findings from primary source articles as they may apply to a larger, generally described population.


Making the problem of food insecurity even more severe are the numerous health and other consequences associated with being food insecure (3). In this issue of The Journal of Nutrition, Ding et al. (4) make a nice con-tributiontothisliteratureontheassociationoffoodinsecuritywith negative outcomes in their paper, ‘‘Food Insecurity Is associated with Poor Sleep Outcomes among US Adults’’. Their work examines an especially important issue insofar as lack of sleep and difficulty initiating sleep have been associated with a wide array of chronic health conditions, including diabetes and hypertension (5, 6).

Using data from the 2005–2010 NHANES, Ding et al. first found that women who are very low food secure have lower sleep durations than women who are fully food secure (i.e., they do not respond affirmatively to any of the food hardship questions posed in the NHANES). Second, they found that men who experience any form of food insecurity (i.e., they respond affirmatively to at least one of the food hardship questions) have longer sleep latencies (the amount of time it takes to fall asleep) than fully food-secure men.

Gundersen, C. (2015). Food insecurity and poor sleep: Another consequence of food insecurity in the United States. The Journal of Nutrition, 145(3), 391–392.

Content adapted from: University of Nebraska-Kearney Library