The use of primary sources is a staple of academic research – these are sources created by someone involved in the matter being described. In the humanities, these typically take the form of letters, diaries, or the like – for the historian, a diary is usually valued more than a book written by someone who wasn’t involved. This isn’t to say that secondary sources have no worth, as those can often take a longer or more nuanced view than that of a person in the thick of things – but the value of a direct witness cannot be understated. Numerous databases are built around these types of materials, like American Civil War: Letters and Diaries, Gale Primary Sources, or The Sixties: Primary Documents and Personal Narratives.
In the sciences, though, it is a bit different. You are not interested in a scientist’s personal thoughts and recollections as much as you are an official record of their experiments, which are typically published as articles in journals. Primary sources in the sciences (from ‘hard’ sciences like Physics to ‘soft’ sciences like Psychology) usually means original research studies in which the author of the article personally took part in the research process.
In a way, primary sources in the sciences are easier to find, because they’re included in the same major databases you’d already be using to find secondary sources, like Wiley Online Library or ProQuest Science. The downside is there isn’t a single button you can press to limit to this type of material.
The best way to identify original research is to quickly browse the text of the article to determine if it describes a new experiment being done, and how it was accomplished. The section that covers this will often be clearly labelled Methods, Methodology, Procedure, The Present Study, or something similar. It will typically also have later sections of the paper dedicated to Analysis or Results. Any article that lacks this description, or that only describes what others have done without introducing its own research, is a secondary source. For example, this paper is a primary source and this paper is not.
There are a few other things to observe. Research studies can differ, and a few do not include original research – for example, an author writing a meta-analysis of a lot of other studies on a given topic will be doing little to nothing new. If in the first paragraph an article tells you that it is a meta-analysis, you can probably disqualify it as a primary source. Also, you may be interested in either a qualitative or quantitative study. Quantitative research (which deals with the measurement and analysis of numerical data) or qualitative research (which deals with observation or interviews of subjects and can be small studies – even single case studies) both have value, but if you need one or the other, try putting that word in with your other keywords when searching. Frequently, which kind of study it is will be mentioned in the abstract or opening paragraph, and certainly in the methodology section.
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