Posted on Leave a comment

Topic Primer: Primary Sources

In its Primary Source Project, ( ), the Library of Congress defines a “primary source” as an original document or object, created by a person who lived in a particular time and place in history. This definition coincides closely with the meaning of a primary source for all disciplines (Table 1), including science and journalism. It is important to note that the final form of the document in science also contributes to whether it is considered a primary source.

  • A primary source in scientific writing is the article published in a peer-reviewed journal and written by the authors who designed the experiment and did the work to collect and analyze the data. In science, the writer of the published journal article has first-hand knowledge, has created the knowledge, has had that article reviewed by peers at a particular time and by editors at the time of publication. Because the ethics of scientific publication require that the journal article contains knowledge only published once, this journal article is the primary source. Synoptics are concisely written (1-2 pages) summaries of complete articles that are simultaneously peer-reviewed with the full paper then published in a primary journal; the full article should be cited in future publications.
  • Secondary sources in science derive their information from primary sources because journal articles are the first report of a scientific finding. An article quoting a primary source is itself a secondary source: its author is quoting the original researcher. Secondary sources often interpret primary sources, which is the reason review papers are considered secondary sources in science even if they are peer reviewed and published in a journal; use reviews as a tool to locate original sources. Secondary sources are derivative works. Primary sources in scientific writing become secondary sources in science writing, also known as science journalism.
  • Tertiary sources in science are collections of secondary and primary source material. Most disciplines agree on what constitutes a tertiary source.

I believe that the lack of understanding for what constitutes a primary source contributes greatly (yet often is unacknowledged) to the tensions that sometimes exists between science writers—those journalists who write about science for a public audience—and the scientists who are writing for their peers in specific disciplines. For science journalists, the interview is the primary source, and the journal article is a secondary source, which makes the scientist the focus of writing directed to the public. That is, the story of the scientist and his or her research outcomes typically are emphasized. Scientists view the journal article as the primary source, not an interview about it; scientists are disappointed that the research details are not highlighted in science writing. The tension is real and tugs at both the scientist and the journalist when the story of the science is told. One teaching technique I use to highlight the tension is to ask each scientist to transform his or her journal article into a magazine article, using the guides for that outlet and the journalist’s “who, what, when, where, why and how” convention. When they know about the primary source dilemma, that transformation becomes easier—and so does understanding science writing.

You may reuse the table on primary sources below in your writing or teaching; please keep the copyright information and the Authors & Editors trademark attached. Also, you may find the free content resources of the Library of Congress helpful when learning or teaching about research and primary sources ( )

Table 1: Rank of Sources by Discipline [pdf]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *