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BIO 110 - Primary Research Articles vs. Review Articles

The Big Picture

The type of articles discussed in this guide (primary research and review) appear in publications called journals.  Journals are similar to magazines, but are written by and for experts.  Journals have been around for hundreds of years, and allow experts to share and increase knowledge for their particular fields. There are journals for trades, industries, sciences, humanities, and so on. 

Just like magazines, an issue of a journal can contain a variety of content - for example, letters from readers, editorials and opinion pieces, brief articles on new developments, primary research articles, review articles, and so on.

The journals where you will find an article suitable for your BIO 110 assignment fall into a grouping called scholarly journals.  Some other names for scholarly journals include academic journals or peer reviewed journals

An important thing to understand: a journal can be scholarly without being peer reviewed.  Peer review is a higher standard which only some scholarly journals meet. 

Important features that make a journal scholarly:

  •     Written by experts who usually hold advanced degrees in academic fields

  •     Written for other experts​

  •     Frequently plain in appearance and without advertisements

  •     Use language specific to the area of expertise​

  •     Sources of information are documented and verifiable by the reader

Important features that make a journal peer reviewed:​

  • Meet all conditions to be considered scholarly​

  • Before being published, articles are reviewed by ​other experts in the relevant field to ensure quality

The Difference Between Primary Research Articles and Review Articles

What makes a journal article "primary research" rather than a "review"?  To answer this question, we need to spend a little more time looking at the big picture.

Information sources of all types (books, newspaper, magazines, journals, blogs, social media, tangible objects, and much much more), about just about anything, can be categorized as primary or secondary

According to the Library of Congress, primary sources are "the raw materials of history" - the originals which people respond to.  Some examples of primary sources - The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin; the football in use when the Eagles won Super Bowl LII; the last tweet made by Barack Obama as President of the United States; Vincent van Gogh's painting The Starry Night.

Secondary sources are responses to primary sources.  For example, if you wrote a term paper about The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, your term paper could be considered a secondary source. 

Primary research articles (also called original research or empirical) are primary sources. Such articles describe newly done (though not necessarily unique) experiments executed with the objective of generating new evidence on a particular topic.  All primary research articles taken together are often referred to by scientists as "the literature."

Review articles (also called literature reviews) are secondary sources. Such articles provide an overview and discussion of primary research done on a particular topic, and can point out problems and suggest needed additional research.  Review articles help experts keep up to date in their fields.

Imagine these examples of a primary research article and a review article - let's say you are a scientist who is an expert in your field.  You have read extensively in your area of expertise, and the writings of others give you a new idea, which inspires you to perform an experiment to generate evidence in support of your idea.  You decide to share your experiment with other experts by writing a paper, which is published in a peer reviewed journal.  So, you have contributed primary research to the literature of science; or in more generic terms, you have created a new primary source.

Over time let's say your paper is widely recognized as a landmark in your field.  Subsequently other experts write a review article to provide an overview of the important topic you helped to define; this article includes a discussion of your primary research.  Since this review article mainly discusses original work created by others, such as your paper about your experiment, it is a secondary source.