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General Science: How to Read a Scientific Paper

Anatomy of Scientific Literature

Understand the components of scientific literature and how to read a scientific article.

View this example of a the Anatomy of a Scholarly Article from the NCSU Libraries:

Here is an excellent explanation of how to read a scientific paper from ASU School of Life Sciences.

More: How to Read a Scientific Paper

More tips on how to read a scientific paper:

Primary Resources in Science

What is a primary source?

Primary sources are original materials. These sources are from the time period involved and have not been filtered through interpretation or evaluation.  Primary sources are original materials on which other research is based.  They represent original thinking, report a discovery, or share new information. 

  • contain an "experimental methods" section
  • recounts experiments that have been been performed by the authors of the articles themselves
  • contains "raw data" compiled by the authors which will usually be presented in tables or charts
  • attempts to address a specific hypothesis
  • has references which give pertinent background information for the hypothesis being addressed in the paper

Some types of primary sources in the sciences include:

  • Original research studies/journal articles that contain methods, materials, and results section describing an experiment or observation performed by the authors, such as a scientific research article
  • Patents
  • Proceedings of Meetings/Conferences
  • Records of Organizations/Government Agencies (Annual reports, treaties, Environmental Impact Statements, etc.)
  • Newspaper articles written at the time can be a primary source for historians or social scientists.

What is a secondary source?

A secondary source interprets and analyzes primary sources.  These sources are usually one or more steps removed from the event.  Secondary sources may have pictures, quotes or graphics of primary sources in them.  Some types of secondary sources include:

  • Wikipedia articles, textbooks, magazine articles, histories, criticisms, commentaries, encyclopedias, review articles (such as Annual Review of Plant Biology).


What is a tertiary source?

  • is often comprised of compilations of primary and secondary literature
  • is a good place to go to learn basic principles and facts about a particular field of study
  • can become outdated as information usually takes a while to find it's way from a primary source to a tertiary source
  • includes: almanacs, encyclopedias, text books, manuals, dictionaries, etc.