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Biology Courses & Research: Primary and
Secondary Sources

Which Should You Use?

It is important to understand the difference between primary and secondary sources because  professors expect students to use both appropriately in course assignments. Be sure to read assignments carefully to determine which is most appropriate. When in doubt consult a librarian or the professor.

Generating Key Words

It will be important to brainstorm possible keywords in order to "research" effectively

  1. What words describe the main concepts you want to investigate? 
  2. What background needs to be filled in to understand the context for viewpoints?
  3. Are there synonyms for the search words you have selected?   
  4. How much can you find out about the author or organization presenting the info?

Freshwater Food Webs
microcosms and food webs
limiting nutrients


What is a Primary Source?

A primary source in the biology field typically refers to a journal article. The author(s) conduct an original research experiment and publish the results or findings in scholarly journals. High-quality articles go through a peer-review process before being published. When your professor asks you to use primary sources it means he or she expects students to search for and analyze original scientific research. 


What is a Secondary Source?

A secondary source means the author(s) are writing about others’ research. Thus the research is secondary because it is a second-hand translation of original research. Secondary sources include encyclopedias, dictionaries, textbooks and review articles where the author analyzes and critiques others’ original research articles. Secondary sources can be high-quality scholarly publications that provide background information on a topic. They are an excellent starting point when learning about a new topic.

Examples of Print & Electronic Secondary Sources Available in the Vogel Library Collection