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ENV 200 Principles of Environmental Science:D'Avanzo: Primary vs Secondary

This guide is for the students in Professor D'Avanzo's section of Principles of environmental science.

Choosing Resources

When doing your research you want to make sure you are selecting appropriate sources for your research, in most cases this will be a scholarly journal article, but in some cases it may be a website.  This may be confusing because the vast majority of items you will be getting will be on the web. 


How do you tell if an item you find on the web is a Journal Article?

There are examples of different types of journal articles on this page, but the primary differences between journal articles and websites are:


Journal Title, and Publisher

Volume, Issue, Date and Pages.

A journal article will always have an author, and it will always be easy to find. It is very important to be able to determine the authority of information, and the author is a very important element of the authority.

A journal article is published by a journal that has the purpose of spreading authoritative scientific information in a field. The journal editors ensure that the material is suitable for the journal. While there are different levels of quality in journals, there is quality control, unlike websites which can be put up by anyone.

Journal articles are always dated, and generally indicate the volume, issue, and pages of the journal the article appears in.  With newer electronic-only journals some do not have pages indicated.


How do I cite a journal I found on the web?

You cite a journal article you found on the web as a journal article, not as a website.

The general pattern is:

 author, (date) title, journal title, volume(issue):pages.

This is an example

Sokolowski MB. 2001. Drosophila: genetics meets behaviour. Nature Review Genetics. 2(11): 879-890.


Using Websites

Websites are not generally a good idea to use as sources. There can be exceptions, but you want to be very judicious when selecting appropriate sources. You want to be certain that you are getting your information from a solid scholarly source, and not from something less appropriate. You would be amazed at how many student papers are on the web. You don’t want to cite someone’s AP Biology paper in your lab report.  There is also a great deal of completely wrong information on the web.

Information from the National Institutes of Health, other government agencies, and prominent research facilities can be good choice for information.


A good guideline is: If you do not know where the information comes from, don’t use it. 

Primary Research

A primary research study is a study based on observation or experimentation. 

Some examples of studies could be:

  • A study of the efficacy of a drug compared to placebo
  • A comparison of two different treatments for a disease
  • A comparison of the success of two (or more) different diets

Primary research studies can be found in many different databases.

To determine if you have a primary research study, begin with the abstract. It should describe the study, who it was performed on, how it was performed and briefly what the results were.

The study will have several sections. Sometimes the sections will be named slightly different things, but they generally include: Introduction, Literature Review, Methods, Results, and Discussion.

If you have any questions, you can always ask a reference librarian.

Primary Research Articles

Primary Research articles are nearly always presented in academic journals. They report on the process and results of primary research. They contain sections on: literature review, methods and materials, results and conclusions.  Sometimes the sections have slightly different names.  Primary articles tend to be more complex than other types of literature, but the abstract can help give you a general understanding of what will follow in the article. 

Below is an example of a journal article. (click on image for full article)


You can tell it is a journal article because you can see the title of the journal, the volume, the pages and the date. This information is in the top left hand corner in the above example, but it can be on the opposite side, or at the bottom depending on the journal. 

If you were going to cite the above journal in your bibliography, it would be cited as:

Shulman JM. 2015. Drosophila and experimental neurology in the post-genomic era. Experimental Neurology. 274: 4-13.

To cite the article within the text of your paper, write:

(Shulman 2015)


Here is another example from an online journal


The citations would look like this:

Gibert JM, Peronnet F, Schlötterer C. 2007. Phenotypic plasticity in Drosophila pigmentation caused by temperature sensitivity of a chromatin regulator network. PLOS Genetics. 3(2): e30.

When cited in your paper, it would look like this:

(Gibert et al. 2007)

Review articles

Review articles are another type of article appearing in a scientific journal. Rather than reporting on original research, like a primary research article, a review article reports on the current state of knowledge about a topic, by presenting recent research about the topic. 

An example of a review article is:  Recent progress in understanding the role of ecdysteroids in adult insects: Germline development and circadian clock in the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster.

You would cite this item:

Uryu O, Ameku T, Niwa R. 2015. Recent progress in understanding the role of ecdysteroids in adult insects: germline development and circadian clock in the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster. Zoological Letters. 1(1): 1-12.

To cite this within your article you would write:

(Uryu et al. 2015)

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