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Identifying Primary and Secondary Articles


Before you begin your research, learn about clues to look for when identifying scholarly articles.


SCHOLARLY literature:

  • contains the study methods and results of research performed by the author(s) of the article
  • is written by/for those with some knowledge in a particular field of study - a certain level of familiarity with the subject is assumed
  • gives the professional affiliation of the researcher in order to establish his/her credentials in their field
  • is extensively referenced - authors must cite the work of others as it pertains to their own work
  • is reviewed by peers who work in the same field (i.e. "peer-reviewed")

POPULAR literature:

  • may be written by experts in a given field or by professional writers
  • is written for a lay audience
  • does not usually contain references


Additionally, it is important to understand the difference between PRIMARY and SECONDARY sources.

PRIMARY literature:

  • contains 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

SECONDARY literature:

  • often takes the form of a review article
  • contains a summary of experiments performed by the author as well as other researchers
  • may contain tables and figures, but usually not as many as a primary source
  • is a good place to go to learn about a field of study with which one is unfamiliar
  • has references which give a history of the research that has been done in a specific area of study

TERTIARY literature:

  • 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  • can become outdated as information usually takes a while to find it's way from a primary source to a tertiary source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.

Types of Resources

 Magazines & Newspapers            

  • Written for a general audience
  • Typically what you would see in a bookstore or on a magazine stand
  • Intended to inform and/or entertain
  • Popular journals do not undergo 'peer-review' process
  • Can be found in many of the article databases to which the University of Maryland subscribes
  • Examples: TimeSports IllustratedScientific American, etc. 

   Scholarly Journals    

  • Written by/for experts in a given field
  • Usually these are available through academic libraries or anywhere there is a need for the highly specialized information contained within these publications
  • Intended to inform
  • Undergo 'peer-review' process prior to publication (see below)
  • To focus on these resources when searching UM article databases, be sure to limit your search to 'scholarly' or 'peer-reviewed' literature
  • Examples: American Journal of Public HealthGenetic Epidemiology,Family and Community Health, etc.


  • Overview, broader in scope
  • Can be out-of-date

Open web

  • Large variety in terms of quality
  • As opposed to subscription-based internet resources such as article databases and e-journals that the UMCP libraries subscribe to.

Ctiteria for Evaluating Resources

Criteria for evaluating resources:

  • Accuracy
    • How does this resource match up with others you've seen? 
    • Do the results seem plausible? 
  • Authority
    • Who created it? 
    • What are the qualifications of the creator?
  • Content
    • Is this written in a ‘professional’ manner?  
    • Is it sloppy? 
    • What kind of evidence does the creator use to support what they are saying?
  • Purpose
    • Is this written in an objective, detached way? 
    • Is this someone’s personal opinion? 
    • Who is the intended audience?
  • Timeliness
    • When was this produced?
    • If a website, when was this updated last? 
    • How old are the works that are foot-noted/cited?

Some examples:

For more detailed information see Evaluating Information Found on the Internet (Johns Hopkins University)