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Pharmacy: Research Methods

Information about library resources and services that support The Ben and Maytee Fisch College of Pharmacy.

Primary, Secondary or Tertiary Sources


A Primary Source is a document which was written, or a physical object which was created, during the time under study. Original materials that have not been filtered through interpretation or evaluation by a second party. There are several types of publications considered primary, including controlled trials, cohort studies, case series, and case reports. These sources were present during an experience or time period and offer an inside view of a particular event.


Some types of primary sources:


  • ORIGINAL DOCUMENTS (excerpts or translations acceptable): Article in scholarly journal reporting research and methodology, conference papers, dissertations, patents, proceedings, studies or surveys, technical reports, theses, diaries, speeches, manuscripts, letters, interviews, news film footage, autobiographies, official records
  • CREATIVE WORKS: Poetry, drama, novels, music, art
  • RELICS OR ARTIFACTS: Pottery, furniture, clothing, buildings

Examples of primary sources:


  • Diary of Anne Frank - Experiences of a Jewish family during WWII
  • A journal article reporting NEW research or findings
  • Weavings and pottery - Native American history         



  • Access to detailed information about a topic
  • Ability to personally assess the validity and applicability of study results
  • Usually more recent than tertiary or secondary literature



  • Possible misleading conclusions based on only one trial without the context of other research
  • Need to have good skills in medical literature evaluation
  • Time needed to evaluate the large volume of literature available

How to search for Primary Sources in the Library Catalog:



Perform a keyword search for your topic and add one of the words below that would identify a source as primary:


  • charters
  • correspondence
  • diaries
  •  documents
  • early works
  • interviews
  •  letters
  • manuscripts
  • oratory
  • pamphlets
  • personal narratives
  • sources
  • speeches

Secondary Sources provide interpretation and analysis of primary sources. These sources are one or more steps removed from the event. When discussing secondary literature there are two commonly used terms, indexing and abstracting; the two terms differ slightly. Indexing consists of providing bibliographic citation information (e.g., title, author, and citation of the article), while abstracting also includes a brief description (or abstract) of the information provided by the article or resource cited.Secondary sources may have pictures, quotes or graphics of primary sources in them.


Some types of secondary sources:


  • PUBLICATIONS: Histories, criticisms, commentaries, government policy, guides to literature, public opinion, reviews, directories, 
  • DATABASES, such as: PubMed or Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews

Examples of secondary sources include:


  • A journal/magazine article which interprets or reviews previous findings
  • A literature review
  • A monograph or book analyzing the research on the effects of specific drugs

Tertiary Sources provide information that has been summarized and distilled by the author or editor to provide a quick easy summary of a topic. They may also compile or digest information from primary or secondary sources that have become widely accepted. These resources are usually convenient, easy to use, and familiar to most practitioners. Most of the information needed by a practitioner can be found in these sources, making these excellent first-line resources when dealing with a drug information question. Usually considered "reference" types of works.

Some types of tertiary sources:




  •  Encyclopedia or Compendia (a collection of concise but detailed information about a particular subject)
  • Textbooks
  • Handouts
  • DATABASES, such as: Micromedex and Drug Facts and Comparisons




Shields KM, Blythe E. Drug Information Resources. In: Malone PM, Kier KL, Stanovich JE, Malone MJ. eds. Drug Information: A Guide for Pharmacists 5eNew York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 2013. Accessed July 17, 2015.

The Evolution of Scientific Information (from Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science, vol. 26).

Scholarly vs. Popular Articles


Scholarly (also known as peer-reviewed) articles are written for university and research-oriented audiences. When you think of a scholarly source, think of academic journals; they are written to be read by scientists, researchers, professors, students, and others in the academic and research community. The language used is highly scientific and technical in nature and will include a long list of references at the end.

Examples of scholarly resources are journals such as Academy of Management Review, American Journal of Public Health, Journal of Cognitive Neueoscience, and Social Science and Medicine.

Popular articles are written for a general audience and often are short in length. When you think of a popular source, think of magazines and newspapers; they are written to be read by the general public and use very plain, easy-to-understand language.

Examples of popular resources are magazines such as Business Week, Time, Vogue, and many other magazines you might see at the grocery store or book store. In addition, newspapers such as Dallas Morning News and Tyler Morning Telegraph are popular resources.