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Marine Biology: Identifying Primary Scientific Literature

This guide includes selected print and electronic books, journals, and databases as well as web resources in the field of marine biology.


Even though a citation database coded an article as peer reviewed, it is always your responsibility to determine whether or not an article is actually primary literature.  Following are some general indications that a journal is publishing primary literature:

  • Journal is published by a professional organization.
  • “Journal” or “Quarterly” are in the title, but this is not a requirement.
  • No general advertisements included.
  • Journal will have a Board of Editors who are specialists in fields covered by the journal.
  • Read instructions to authors to learn if a formal peer review is required.
  • Look at the journal issue and the specific article to definitively determine if the article is peer reviewed. 

Remember primary journal articles are written in a specific format.  Some journals include primary and secondary articles in the same issue.

Primary Scientific Literature

What is primary scientific literature?

Primary literature in the sciences is the scholarly journal articles that report on research projects undertaken by the authors. A primary scientific journal article will include:

  • Introduction and literature review
  • Methods
  • Results
  • Discussion

.Quality primary literature is:

  • Peer reviewed or refereed - a formal evaluation process prior to publication
  • Written in a specific format required by the journal
  • Well researched and referenced

Other Types of Scientific Literature

Are there other types of scientific literature?

Yes, there are two other kinds of scientific literature. 

1. Secondary Literature summarizes scientific research on a specific topic. It may be very scholarly in style and published in a journal or book, or written for non-specialists and published in magazines or books. It doesn't report on a single research project but reviews information from many sources to provide a comprehensive discussion of the research conducted on a subject. A journal article of this type is called a Review Article.

2. Grey Literature consists of papers, reports, technical notes or other documents that are produced by government agencies, academic institutions, and other institutions. Grey literature is not usually published and distributed commercially and is often the first documented report of research findings. It can be difficult to locate because it may not be available online and many academic databases do not cover this type of material. Often research will be published in grey literature before it is published in the primary literature.

Examples of Types of Scientific Literature

Finding Primary Scientific Literature

How can I find primary journal articles?

Citation databases provide the best method for finding primary literature. These databases index all of the literature published in broad subject areas, and provide the user subject and keyword searching to identify needed articles. Many citation databases index primary, secondary, and grey literature.  The citation databases allow the user to link from the citation to the full-text article if the library subscribes to the online version of the article. The following citation databases specific to the biological and marine sciences that are accessible to authorized users only: