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Links to resources for conducting Biology research at Okanagan College, and tips on how to use them. This guide also links to course-specific research strategy guides for some OC Biology courses.

Scientific information : Primary – Secondary Literature

Scientific information evolves through a continuous process of communication among scientists. It develops in cycles moving from ideas, through research that tests the ideas, to publications reporting the results, first in the primary literature and later in the secondary and, if significant enough, in the tertiary literature.




Formation of a hypothesis.


Search of the literature to see what has been done before and testing of the hypothesis in the lab or field. Literature Review



Informal discussion of research with colleagues via email, discussion lists, at meetings, seminars, etc.


More formal record of research published as preprint or technical report, a personal website, or given as a conference paper for which proceedings are not published. (These publications are part of the primary literature, since it is an original record of research, but are called "grey" because they are harder to locate than the readily available primary literature below.)


Detailed record of research formally published as an article in a journal or a paper in the published proceedings of a conference. Some may appear as brief reports of research in progress (sometimes called "communications" or "letters"), with whole journals or a section of a journal devoted to this format. Most will be published as longer research articles in scholarly journals and are peer-reviewed prior to publication lending them the most authority. Searched via article databases. Examples: Nature, Science, Ecology



Publications summarizing and pointing to the primary literature soon after it appears. Their main purpose is to facilitate timely access to scientific information, most readily through article databases.

Review articles published in peer-reviewed journals or appearing in annual volumes devoted exclusively to reviews. A review is a digest of recent research in a particular subject area and, are an invaluable resource for background information.

Add “review” as a keyword when searching article databases.

Examples: Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, and Trends in Ecology and Evolution

Magazines & Newspapers published for a broader and more popular audience; not peer-reviewed; contain research of others rather than the original reports. Examples: New Scientist, Scientific American

Books that review current literature also fall into this category.

Example: The world of wolves: new perspectives on ecology, behaviour, and management / edited by Marco Musiani, Luigi Boitani, &Paul C. Paquet.Kelowna Circulating Collection QL 737 .C22 W67 2010



Publications that also summarize and point to the primary literature, but generally only after it has become widely accepted and believed, such as handbooks, encyclopedias, textbooks, and popular literature-- all good sources for background information.




Types of Scientific Scholarly Articles:

You will encounter many types of articles and it is important to distinguish between these different categories of scholarly literature. 


A primary research article describes an original research study that aims to gain new knowledge on a topic through direct or indirect observation and research and reports on results.  These include quantitative or qualitative data and analysis. In science, a primary article will often include the following sections:  Abstract; Introduction, Methods/Materials, Results, and Discussion (often called IMRD) plus References.

Peer-reviewed research papers are published in scholarly journals/periodicals and directed toward a scientific audience. Often in journal sections headed Research Articles. Examples: Nature, Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Biological Sciences

They may be accompanied in such journals by Research Reports, Research Letters which are not peer-reviewed


In the scientific literature, this type of article provides a synthesis of existing research on a particular topic. Secondary Articles will summarize & interpret primary research. They may be termed as  Literature Reviews because they will look at many primary articles and give an overview of the primary literature on a topic. These are useful when you want to get an idea of a body of research that you are not yet familiar with, and are a good sources for citations of primary articles

They do NOT contain an experiment, study, or research. If you are unsure, read the abstract (summary) of the article.  Often the abstract will contain the word review or summary as a clue. Some reviews may include an introduction and methodology section to explain the nature of the review activity

Appear in peer-reviewed journals. Specific journals publish mainly review articles, such as Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, and Trends in Ecology and Evolution

There are different types of reviews see the table below for the features, pros and cons and examples for:

Reviews (Narrative) | Systematic Reviews | Meta-analyses  



Refers to articles that have undergone a rigorous review process by peers/experts in their discipline, often including revisions to the original manuscript, before publication in a scholarly journal. Primary research articles in reputable life science journals are always peer-reviewed. Reviews are often peer-reviewed as well


Type of Source Pros Cons Examples
Journal Articles  
Reviews (Narrative)

Provide summaries of what is known on specific topics.

Aim may vary from scoping ie. identifying nature and extent of research to a full exhaustive literature search, appraisal and synthesis of research evidence to produce a best evidence synthesis.

Often tabular with narrative commentary

Methodology used in compiling the summaries may not be scientific or systematic or, not included at all. 

No details of study inclusion/exclusion

Susceptible to selection of study or publication bias.

Russo, D., & Ancillotto, L. (2014). Sensitivity of bats to urbanization: A review. Mammalian Biology, 80, 205-212.

Systematic Reviews

Provide systematically derived summaries of research studies on specific topics.

Employ strict methods when searching for, screening, critically appraising and synthesizing studies to maximise reliability, transparency, repeatability and objectivity

Details of study inclusion/exclusion criteria. Studies included are appraised for quality.

Use defined search strategies in multiple academic databases and by searching for grey literature where appropriate

Addresses a single research question

Requires some research to already have been done on the research question

Resource- intensive


Krafte Holland, K., Larson, L. R., & Powell, R. B. (2018). Characterizing conflict between humans and big cats Panthera spp: A systematic review of research trends and management opportunities. PLoS One, 13(9), e0203877.




Provide systematically derived summaries of research studies on specific topics and applies statistical methods of analyses.

"Study of studies" combining results from multiple studies

Use defined search strategies in multiple academic databases, but not grey literature

Graphical, tabular, narrative commentary

Requires considerable amounts of research to have already been done on the specific research question

Characterizes studies by quantitative methods. Some quality assessment of studies.

Kalies, E. L., Chambers, C. L., & Covington, W. W. (2010). Wildlife responses to thinning and burning treatments in southwestern conifer forests: A meta-analysis. Forest Ecology and Management, 259, 333-342.

Research Reports/Articles

Describes original research studies and reports on results Can be time-consuming to read, and interpret.

Proctor, M. F., Paetkau, D., Wakkinen, W. L., Haroldson, M. A., Mowat, G., Apps, C. D., … Gibeau, M. L. (2012). Population fragmentation and inter-ecosystem movements of grizzly bears in western Canada and the northern United States. Wildlife Monographs, 180, 1-46

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