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BIO203H5 - Introductory Plant Morphology and Physiology

Primary vs. Secondary Guide

Primary sources

Primary scientific literature has several characterisitics:

1. They often have a "Materials and Methods" section and "Results" section.

2. Authors may use "We" or "I" to describe what was done.

3. They are usually very specific: mentioning particular places, organisms, etc.

4. Papers usually start with an introduction-- an overview to set the stage for the research. A very explicit description of what was done follows: the materials or methods used and/or the exact location and sampling procedures. A discussion section will attempt to place the work in a larger theoretical context and may suggest further research to follow and extend the conclusions.

Secondary sources

Secondary scientific literature is generally contained in works such as books, chapters or review articles.  Primary scientific papers may be difficult to read if the general subject is not well understood.  Reading secondary resources first may help to place the research in context.  They are sometimes referred to as literature reviews.

Primary, Secondary & Tertiary Sources

Primary Sources:

  • original research
  • usually 1st appearance of results
  • research conducted BY authors of paper


  • Proceedings of meetings, conferences and symposia
  • Technical reports 
  • Dissertations or theses
  • Patents
  • Newspaper articles
  • Data sets, such as census statistics 
  • Listservs, newsgroups, and email
  • Scientific journal articles reporting experimental research results 

Secondary Sources:

  • describe, interpret, analyse, evaluate, comment on, and discuss primary sources
  • repackage and reorganize information


  • Dissertations or theses (may also be primary)
  • Databases
  • Books (may also be primary)
  • Newspaper articles (may also be primary)
  • Review articles
  • Magazine articles

Tertiary Sources:

  • compile, analyse and condense secondary sources into a convenient, easy-to-read form
  • tend to be factual


  • Dictionaries and encyclopedias 
  • Databases (may also be secondary)
  • Textbooks 
  • Course specific webpages