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BIOL 111: Unity of Life: How to Search for Primary Literature

What is primary literature & 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.

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 this short video: "Peer Review in 5 Minutes".

Reading a Citation

When reading a citation, break it down into parts. Check out the color-coded example below:

Eichenlaub-Ritter U. 2005. Mouse genetic models for aneuploidy induction in germ cells. Cytogenet Genome Res 111(3-4): 392-400.

Author. Year of PublicationArticle TitleJournal TitlVolume (Issue): page numbers.

Tip: The most common pitfall of reading citations is mixing up the article and journal titles. Remember that searching Primo to determine whether or not we have an article is most effective when you search for the journal title to see what coverage is available through the library.

Primary vs Secondary Sources in the Sciences

Research Strategies

  • Most databases automatically search for words anywhere, also known as keyword searching. These search results will include more information and more results, but less precision
  • If you are looking for a particular author, title, or subject, look for the database's advanced search option. This offers dropdown menus for searching just a specific field, such as the abstract or the title. These searches typically retrieve less information and fewer results with more precision.
  • Need to search for an exact phrase? Use quotation marks to search for phrases such as "biofilm formation" to obtain only articles with that specific phrase, not just articles that include both words anywhere in the record. 
  • Search for multiple forms of a word using truncation. Since the truncation symbol varies depending on the database, check the database's help screen to find out which one is used...usually it's an asterisk (*). Searching for inhib* will retrieve records that contain any words that start with inhib, including inhibit, inhibits, inhibition, etc. 

Too many results? Too few?

So you've started your search. What do you do if....

...you're getting too many results?

Try these tips to narrow down your search:

  • Use more specific terms and concepts, like "bacterial growth" instead of "microbes" or "Psuedomonas putida" instead of "bacterium."

  • Use AND (in caps) to narrow a search. A search for (biofilms AND amylase)  will bring back only those records that contain both terms. 
  • Try a subject search instead of a keyword search. Find one relevant article with your initial search, then look for the the subject headings (also called descriptors) in the article's record to find ideas for other search terms to try...usually those subject headings are clickable links. 
  • Perform a keyword search, but limit your searching to only the title or abstract fields. This will bring you back only the most relevant results.  

...you're not getting enough results? 

If your searches come up with no results, or only one or two articles, try these strategies before assuming there isn't any information out there!

  • Check your spelling. It may sound obvious, but look for typos! Databases are programmed to identify some misspellings, but not all of them.

  • Try broader search words. For example, instead of searching for "amylase", try searching for "enzyme." You can always narrow it down again!

  • Use OR (in caps) to broaden a search, retrieving records that contain any of the words you search for.  You can use parentheses to group together search terms with OR. A search for biofilms AND (growth OR formation OR development) will return records using either term for your variable:
  • Try a different database. Each database has different strengths in coverage!

...STILL not finding anything? Ask a librarian for help! Send an email or try our 24/7 Chat with a Librarian service.