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Primary Sources

This guide to primary sources focuses on collections owned or subscribed to by UBC Library. Freely available resources are also described if they are significant collections or have a Canadian focus.


In the sciences, primary sources, or "primary literature," are sources which report the results of original research. The most common primary sources in the sciences are journal articles or conference papers which describe a new theory or the results of an experiment. In contrast, sources which review the existing literature are "secondary sources." These can include "review articles" in journals, books, encyclopedia entries, and news reports.

The fields of history, philosophy, and sociology of science use primary source materials much like those used in the Humanities. Students researching in one of these areas should also consult the information in the Humanities section of this guide.

Primary source journal articles in the sciences usually follow a certain structure, with the following sections:

  • Abstract (summarizing the article)
  • Introduction (providing a brief review of related literature)
  • Methods and materials (describing how this original study was set up)
  • Results (reporting the findings of this study)
  • Discussion (the implications of this study in relation to other work in the field)

Primary source journal articles (and sometimes, conference proceedings) in the sciences are usually peer-reviewed. This means that independent experts in the field review, or "referee" the publication to check the accuracy and validity of its claims.

Formats of Primary Sources

  • Journal articles reporting original research (in contrast to "review articles," which are secondary sources)
  • Conference papers and proceedings
  • Technical reports
  • Dissertations and theses
  • Patents
  • Numerical data and statistics
  • Samples, field notes and plant specimens
  • Lab notes and journal entries


Some Characteristics and Examples of Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources in the Sciences


  • Generally in research journals; report research done by the authors
  • Usually only include references to other primary sources
  • Covers very focused and specialized topics

Example: Articles in the journal Boundary-Layer Meteorology


  • Research writings or graduate level text
  • Generally include a large bibliography
  • Usually bibliographic references are primary sources
  • Topic coverage is more focused than tertiary, but less focused than primary

Example: The book Atmospheric Boundary Layer, by J.R. Garratt, 1992.


  • Undergraduate text, or a textbook designed for a course
  • Sparse references, generally secondary sources
  • General and very broad topic coverage

Example: The book The Atmosphere, by R.A. Anthes, et al., 2nd ed. 1978


Finding Primary Sources in the Library Catalogue

Try a keyword search in the library catalogue combining your subject with words that identify a particular genre:

  • technical reports, diary/ies, journals, lab books
  • papers, proceedings
  • patents
  • studies, results

Finding Primary Sources in the Sciences

Each discipline taught at UBC is represented by a Library Research guide. The guides describe and link to the best sources for your research - including collections which contain significant numbers of primary sources in the Sciences. Click the "Applied Sciences," "Natural Sciences," "Health Sciences" or "Physical Sciences" links to bring up the guides for these topic areas.