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Psychology 200 Bonner

What is a primary source?

Primary sources are original, uninterpreted information.  Scholars analyze primary sources in order to answer research questions. Examples of primary sources vary by discipline.

Examples in the humanities:

  • a novel
  • a painting
  • a theatre performance

Examples in the social sciences:

  • a political, social, or economic theory
  • a dataset
  • the results of an experiment published in a peer-reviewed journal

Example in the sciences:

  • the results of an experiment published in a peer-reviewed journal

What is a secondary source?

In secondary sources, authors analyze and interpret primary source materials. 

Secondary sources can be scholarly or popular.  Scholarly sources (sometimes called "academic" or "peer-reviewed" sources) are written by and for experts and typically include bibliographies and citations.  Popular sources are written for a general, non-expert audience and can be authored by anyone.

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Primary Sources in Psychology

Primary sources in psychology are original materials based on first-hand accounts of research conducted by the author(s). They are usually written at the time the research is occurring or shortly after the research is complete, and they present new information or discoveries.

Primary sources in psychology:

  • are written accounts of original research, study, or experimentation conducted by the author(s) of the resource.
  • are written accounts of primary research and are typically published in scholarly, peer-reviewed journals, and are often published by professional associations or academic institutions.
  • are often empirical research articles and generally contain standard components, and follow a specific format or pattern.
    • typically they include an abstract, a methods section, discussion, a conclusion and a bibliography.
  • can be found by looking for clues.
    • read the abstract of an article and look for statements like:
      • The research we conducted shows . . .
      • The aim of our study was . . .
      • We looked at two groups of children . . .
      • Our research concluded that . . .

Used with permission from Andrea J. Kueter, Social Sciences Liaison Librarian, University of Puget Sound.

Locating Research Articles in Psychology

To locate research articles in psychology, we recommend the Advanced search options from the tabbed search box.  [A link to the Advanced search options is provided below.] 

The image below is a screen shot of the Advanced search options with a topic term [addiction] in the first search field and the parameters [study or research or empirical or data or method or experiment] in the second search field.

Image of the Advanced search options

You also have the option to limit your results to Scholarly [Peer Reviewed] Journals.  Please note that although empirical studies are published in peer-reviewed journals, not every article in a peer-reviewed journal reports empirical research studies.

Reading Guide to Empirical Articles

  • Read the title of the article and the abstract if one is available
    • Title will provide information on what the research is attempting to measure, predict, etc.
    • Abstract will provide an overview of the article itself.
  • Read the introduction:  the introduction will review previous research and explain the general theory behind the research discussed in the article
    • Read and try to determine the point of each paragraph
    • Identify the big question - what problem is trying to be solved? what behavior is attempting to be predicted?
    • Summarize the background in your own words in 3 to 5 sentences.  Keep these questions in mind:
      • What has been done before to answer the big question?
      • What are the limitations?
      • What needs to be done next?
    • Find a carefully read the hypothesis.
      • What are the authors trying to answer with the research?
    • What do the authors plan to do to answer their questions?
    • What are some of the research studies reviewed in the introduction?  Find the citations in the Reference List.
  • Methods and Results
    • Locate the methods; don't worry about what you cannot understand as this section is for those with expert knowledge.
    • Locate the results; again, don't worry about you cannot understand and focus only on what you can.
  • Read the Discussion
    • Did the researchers' data support their hypothesis.
    • What were the results of the study?
    • What do the authors think those results mean?
    • Are weaknesses identified?
    • What are the next steps?

Empirical Research

Empirical Research
According to the APA Dictionary of Psychology, 'empirical' research is "1. derived from or denoting experimentation or systematic observations as the basis for conclusion or determination, as opposed to speculative, theoretical, or exclusively reason-based approaches. 2. based on experience."

Peer Review
Refers to the process that a scholarly book or journal article goes through when an author's research and writing is evaluated by experts in their discipline or field.  In the case of a journal article, peers review articles to determine if they'll be accepted and published in a specific journal.  In the case of psychology journals, expert peers are evaluating and checking the accuracy and originality of the research being reported.