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BIOL 111L: Cell Biology Lab - Christensen & Anderson: Primary vs. Seconday Scientific Literature

How to access the primary literature by Dr. Brian Wisenden

The “primary” literature is the first, original reporting of a scientific finding. Primary sources are usually academic journals that are published monthly. Academic journals have editors and editorial boards of established scientists that oversee peer-review of submitted manuscript.

Being peer-reviewed is the quality of academic journals that distinguish them from secondary sources such as magazines, text books, web sites (including Wikipedia) and television shows. Peer-review is a process that checks the validity of the findings and conclusions in a study.

Peer-review: When a scientist, or more commonly, a team of scientists have completed a study, analyzed the results and written a manuscript based on the findings, the next step to getting the work published in a journal is to submit the manuscript to a journal. The manuscript is received by a managing editor who then assigns the manuscript to an associate editor whose area of expertise is in the area that matches the topic of the manuscript. Because the associate editor knows many experts in the topic of the manuscript, they find two experts to review the manuscript and write a critique summarizing the strengths and weaknesses of the study. These reviews are anonymous (to the author(s) but not the editor) and are usually very blunt about even minor shortcoming and oversights. The criticisms from peer-review are quite severe. When two reports have been received the associate editor composes a decision letter to the author(s) about whether or not the manuscript can be published in the journal. Rejection rates vary among journals but rejection rates are usually higher than 50%. For manuscripts that are not rejected outright, the authors are offered an opportunity to revise their work in accordance with criticisms and suggestions from the reviewers. If the authors are able to revise the manuscript to the satisfaction of the editor then, and only then, does the manuscript get published. The peer-review process ensures that only studies that have survived intense scrutiny are published. Thus, sources from the primary literature are  more reliable than sources that have not been vetted in this way.

In scientific writing, citations to the literature are always from primary sources. We do not cite sources such as the course text book because information published in the text book is the understanding of the book authors of their reading of the primary literature. As a professional, you are accountable for the things you say. Your understanding of a study should not be based on what someone else thinks, but what you yourself think after having read the original source.

One quick and easy source of primary literature is google scholar at Be careful to examine the outcome of searches on google scholar to ensure that they are indeed primary reports of new findings and not books or synthesized reviews of the primary literature. The best source of primary literature is the university library at Search under the tab for article. Be sure to click on the boxes for scholarly (peer-reviewed) and full text access so that you can view the pdf of articles that match the search criteria.

Information on primary literature

Examples of Scientific Journal Literature

Journal of Fish Biology 2003 to present (Embargo: 1 year) - Primary Literature

Marine Biology 1967-present - Primary Literature

Oceanus 1996-present - Secondary Literature

Journal of Marine Biology  is a peer-reviewed, open access journal that publishes original research articles as well as review articles in all areas of marine biology.

Journal of Marine Systems 1995-present - provides a medium for interdisciplinary exchange between physical, chemical and biological oceanographers and marine geologists. The journal welcomes original research papers and review articles. Preference will be given to interdisciplinary approaches to marine systems.

Check the Library's A to Z Journal Directory for other journal titles with the word "marine" in them.

Functional Ecology 1998 to present (Embargo: 1 year) Contains short original papers particularly emphasizing the fields of physiological, biophysical and evolutionary ecology.

Marine Ecology 1998 to present (Embargo: 1 year)  Continues the reports of the Stazione Zoologica di Napoui and is of interest to marine biologists, ecologists, geologists, and oceanographers.

Ecology of Freshwater Fish 2001 to present (Embargo: 1 year) Features original articles on fish ecology and fishery sciences in lakes, rivers and estuaries.

Freshwater Biology 1998 to present (Embargo: 1 year) Covers all aspects of the ecology of lakes and rivers, including studies of micro-organisms, algae, invertebrates, fish and other vertebrates as well as those concerning whole systems and related physical and chemical aspects of the environment.

Marine & Freshwater Behaviour & Physiology 2002 to present (Embargo: 18 months) Contains papers on research into the physiology of marine and freshwater animals. Covers all fields of physiology as well as behavioral and neurobiological matters.