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BIOL 211 : Ecology : Primary Literature

Use this guide as a starting point for your literature research in ecology and related fields.

What is primary literature and how do I use it?

In the sciences, a primary source

  • is peer reviewed
  • is published in a scientific journal
  • and contains first-hand reports of research presented by the person or team that did the research.

Primary scholarly references are the gold standard for your background research as a scientist. Secondary scholarly literature—review articles, books, encyclopedias, handbooks, etc.—are useful entry points, but shouldn't be used alone. Follow up on the citations you find in secondary sources to get to the primary scholarly references.

Why use primary literature?

  • Primary research is the original research. As a scholar, you need to read and interpret the original work yourself. Secondary literature is someone else's understanding of the original source, so while it's a great tool and excellent source of background, you can't rely only on it. Secondary work may misinterpret the primary literature, since humans are fallible, or leave out crucial details, since the focus of secondary literature is on the big picture.
  • Scientific primary literature is peer reviewed, or refereed, before being published. This enhances the quality and validity of the work. In the peer-review process, 2-3 specialists in the field read and critically evaluate the work before it can be published. 
    • Peer review is a quality-control measure to ensure that the primary literature includes only high quality, valid scientific information. Primary authors may revise and resubmit articles to improve them. Secondary literature is less stringently reviewed. 
    • To learn more about peer-review, check out "Peer Review in 3 Minutes".

Primary vs Secondary Literature in the Sciences

Primary or Secondary?

Are either or both of these articles considered "primary literature" and why or why not? 

Primary Literature?
Both are primary literature.: 6 votes (25%)
Neither are primary literature.: 2 votes (8.33%)
Only Weiss 2006 "Defecation behavior" is primary: 4 votes (16.67%)
Only Weiss 2003 "Good housekeeping" is primary literature: 12 votes (50%)
Total Votes: 24

What about web pages?

You can use general web search engines as a tool to help you find primary literature and you can use digital primary literature, but you cannot cite websites in your written work for this class.

Why not? Because:

  • Many websites lack permanency. Here’s ESA’s policy on the use of web references in the journals it publishes. We will follow this same guideline.

 “The Literature Cited section of a paper may refer only to permanently archived material. If a reasonably diligent scholar 20 years in the future could not be assured of finding a particular source, it would not be acceptable as literature cited.Because Internet sources typically have a short half-life, they may not be included in Literature Cited sections unless there is reasonable evidence of permanency (e.g., Ecological Archives).”

  • Unlike primary literature, which goes through the process of editing and peer-review, general material on the web is not subject to a review process or to any quality standards at all.
  • Information on the web can be written by nearly anyone for nearly any purpose, from fun to political agenda.

So how can you use the web well for this class?

  • Use the information and vocabulary you find on the free web to enhance your searches in an article database and find an appropriate primary reference to cite.
  • Follow links or citations from an author's website or popular report to the primary literature article that has undergone the quality-control of peer-review.
  •  Use Google Scholar to find references to articles and then use the library’s resources get to the full text.

Need Help?

 Stuck? Need Help? Don't hesitate to contact Eli!

Eli Gandour-Rood, Science Librarian
egandourrood@pugetsound.edu

tel: (253) 879-3678

Click Here to Schedule an Appointment!