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Scholarly Journal Articles: Structure and Function

Primary, secondary, and tertiary forms of literature

Each academic discipline has a body of periodicals, books (monographs), guidelines, handbooks, and manuals that together constitutes the knowledge base of the field. This body of scholarly work is made up of several distinct types of literature.

Primary literature: literature that represents the discovery of, or quest for, new knowledge, as represented by reports of original research studies.

  • The typical format of primary literature varies from one discipline to another. In the humanities and social sciences, original research is often published in book (monograph) form, while in the health and biomedical sciences, it is usually published in the form of a scholarly journal article.
  • To be considered "primary" literature, a journal article must ....
    • represent the first disclosure of the findings
    • be written in sufficient detail so as to permit readers to repeat the study, and to evaluate the author's conclusions
    • be published in a form that is essentially permanent
    • be made available to journal indexing services such as MEDLINE or CINAHL (1)
  • The 1953 letter to the editor by Watson and Crick (2) is a classic example of primary literature:



Secondary literature: literature that reviews or indexes the primary literature. Examples include review articles, yearbooks, and journal article databases such as MEDLINE and CINAHL.   



Tertiary literature: literature that provides a general summary of knowledge in the discipline, such as encyclopedias, handbooks, and textbooks.




1. Day RA, Gastel B. How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper. 6th ed. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press; 2006, pg 18-20.

2. Watson JD, Crick FH. Molecular structure of nucleic acids; a structure for deoxyribose nucleic acid. Nature. 1953;171(4356):737-738.