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Primary Sources

A Library Subject Guide

Identifying Primary Research Articles

How Will I Know It's a Research Study?

To conduct and publish an experiment, an author or team of authors designs an experiment, gathers data, then analyzes the data and discusses the results of the experiment. A published experiment or research study will therefore look very different from other types of articles (newspaper stories, magazine articles, essays, etc.) found in our library databases.
In fact, newspapers, magazines, and websites written by journalists report on psychology research all the time, summarizing published experiments in non-technical language for the general public. The following guidelines will help you recognize an experimental article, written by the researchers themselves and published in a scholarly journal.

Structure of an Experimental Article

Typically, an experimental article has the following sections:
  • Abstract
    • The author summarizes the article
  • Introduction
    • The author discusses the general background of the research topic; often, they will present a literature review, that is, summarize what other experts have written on this particular research topic
  • Methods
    • The author describes the experiment they designed and conducted
  • Results
    • The author presents the data they gathered during the experiment
  • Discussion
    • The author offers ideas about the importance and implications of their research findings, and speculates on future directions that similar research might take
  • Literature Cited
    • The author gives a reference list of sources used in the paper

Also, experimental/empirical articles are written in very formal, technical language and will usually contain numerical data presented in tables. Because primary research articles are written in technical language by professional researchers for experts like themselves, the articles can be very hard to understand. However, if you carefully review the introduction, results, and discussion sections, you will usually be able to understand and use one or two main ideas that the author is trying to get across, like why their experiment is important, and what results they discovered.

Searching for Primary Research

Determine keywords for your research topic. Avoid sentences or long phrases.

  • PTSD OR "post traumatic stress disorder"

Add one of these keyword phrases to your search:

  • "empirical study"
  • "empirical research"
  • "primary research"
  • (methods AND results)
  • methodology

Or add more than one to create a larger search string:

  • "empirical study" OR "empirical research" OR "primary research"
  • "empirical study" AND (methods AND results) OR methodology

Your entire search might look like:

  • (PTSD OR "post traumatic stress disorder") AND ("empirical study" OR "empirical research" OR "primary research")

Databases with Primary Research