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How To Find Primary Research Papers

A primary research article reports on an empirical research study conducted by the authors. It is almost always published in a peer-reviewed journal. This type of article:

  • Asks a research question or states a hypothesis or hypotheses
  • Identifies a research population
  • Describes a specific research method
  • Tests or measures something
  • Includes a section called "method" or "methodology." This may only appear in the article, not the abstract.
  • Includes a section called "results."

Words to look for as clues include: analysis, study, investigation, examination, experiment, numbers of people or objects analyzed, content analysis, or surveys.

To contrast, the following are not primary research articles (i.e., they are secondary sources):

  • Literature reviews
  • Meta-Analyses/Review articles (These are studies that arrive at conclusions based on research from many other studies.)
  • Editorials
  • Letters
  • Chapters in books
  • Encyclopedia articles
  • Speeches and interviews

History, Humanities, Social Sciences

Primary sources in these disciplines are original records created at the time historical events occurred or well after events in the form of memoirs and oral histories.

Examples include: Letters, manuscripts, diaries, rare books, historical photographs, first-hand accounts or documentary sources on a subject, person, event or issue; newspapers written at the time of an event, song, or film from time period, historical maps, government reports or data, etc.

More information:

Health Sciences, Sciences, Engineering

Primary sources in the sciences are original materials or information on which other research is based. Primary sources are also sets of data, such as health statistics, which have been tabulated, but not interpreted.

Examples include: Journal articles of original research (written by person who did the research), patents, conference papers, dissertations, technical reports, Einstein’s diary

More information:



Context is important

The types of information that can be considered primary sources may vary depending on the subject discipline, and also on how you are using the material. For example:
  • A magazine article reporting on recent studies linking the reduction of energy consumption to the compact fluorescent light bulb would be a secondary source.
  • A research article or study proving this would be a primary source.
  • However, if you were studying how compact fluorescent light bulbs are presented in the popular media, the magazine article could be considered a primary source.
Tip: If you are unsure if a source you have found is primary, talk to your instructor, librarian or archivist.

What are secondary sources?

  • Secondary sources are interpretations and evaluations of primary sources
  • Secondary sources are not evidence, but rather commentary on and discussion of evidence.
  • Books, articles, etc. which use primary sources as the source would be secondary.

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