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Marine Biology Research: Identifying Primary Scientific Literature

Guidance and key resources for doing academic research in Marine Biology.

Primary Scientific Literature

What is primary scientific literature?

Primary literature in the sciences is in the form of articles published in scholarly journals and describes the research projects undertaken by the authors. The format of a primary scientific journal article is fairly consistent and will include:

Introduction and literature review Introduces the context of the research, its goals, and the background research within the literature used to inform the investigation
Methods What the researchers actually did
Results The factual outcome of the research
Discussion Interpretation of the results and comparison to the outcomes of other published research

We sometimes refer to this classic structure that indicates a primary research article as "IMRD"

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:

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 because it reviews the research on a specific topic.

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.

Remember, many journals include both primary and secondary articles in the same issue.

Peer Review (Quality Control)

Quality published literature is:

  • Peer reviewed or refereed
  • Written in a specific format required by the journal
  • Well researched and referenced

Peer Review is a formal evaluation process by experts prior to publication. Even though a citation database may describe an article as peer reviewed, it is always your responsibility to determine whether or not this is actually the case. This is best determined by visiting the journal website and looking for:

  • Peer Review statement or policy
  • Instructions to authors, which may describe the peer review process.