How to do find primary sources for lab reports

This guide provides tips for finding primary sources that can be integrated into lab reports for BIO 111. Apply these research strategies to other science classes as well. The guide helps answer the following questions: 

  1. When should I start looking for sources?
  2. What is a "primary source"?
  3. Which databases should I explore?
  4. What terms should I look for? 
  5. How do I know if an article applies to my research? 
  6. Additional tips

When should I start looking for sources for my lab report?

Ideally, you should do a search of the literature before you craft your hypothesis. The information you find from researching the literature should help you predict what might happen in an experiment. 

If you have not done your research before writing your hypothesis, don't worry you can still make it through the lab report, but remember it is best to do your research earlier. Scientists want to know if someone else has already done their research before them. They also want to be able to predict if their experiment will work. The only way to do this is through literature/library research. 

What is a "primary source"?

In science, when your professor refers to a primary source, they are usually referring to a research articleResearch articles describe the processes and outcomes of structured tests and experiments. Primary sources in science have some original analysis of data and this analysis was conducted by the authors themselves. This differs from secondary sources, such as review articles, where authors mainly review or summarize the work of others. 

 How to identify a research article: 

  • The authors describe doing a research study in the abstract,
  • The article provides some description of methods used to conduct an experiment, and
  • The article has a results section which usually contains data (often numerical, but can also be image data and qualitative data) and often visualizations of the data (graphs, charts, tables). 

Which databases should I explore?

For BIO 111, try out the following scholarly databases. You might have to try more than one to find a relevant source: 

What terms should I look for?

  1. Identify your variables. 
    Example: Rate of osmosis; pH
  2. Think of some synonyms or similar terms for your variables. Use the OR boolean to separate your synonyms and ( ) to separate concepts.
    (pH OR acidity)
    (concentration OR salinity OR molarity) 

  3. Put your search terms (both your independent and dependent variables) into the database. Experiment with different phrases and different terms: 
    osmosis AND (pH OR acidity) 
    rate AND osmosis AND (pH OR acidity)
    effect AND osmosis AND (pH OR acidity)

  4. If you get a lot of papers about a topic that doesn't apply to you, try eliminating those papers using the NOT boolean. 
    osmosis AND (concentration OR salinity) NOT reverse
  5. Try out the asterisks symbol as a wildcard. It will tell the database to search for the first part of a term with any ending. 
    osmo* will return papers with the word osmosis and osmotic 

How do I know if an article applies to my research?

Deciding if an article is appropriate for your research can be difficult, especially when you are just getting used to reading scholarly articles. Try some of the following tips: 

  • Read the abstract first. 
  • Try to determine if the authors measured similar variables as those you might test in your lab. 
  • Look at the images, graphs, and charts. These might let you know what variables the authors measured. 
  • Look up or Google words you don't understand. For example, many papers about osmosis use "flux" as a measurement. Find out what it means and decide if it applies to your research. 

Additional Tips

  • Be persistent. Try different databases, look deeper than the first page of results. 
  • Start searching early. 
  • There is no "perfect source." You will have to think critically about potential sources. 
  • Contact the librarian for help. Kelly's contact information is listed on the upper right section of this page. 


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Kelly Getz
103 Halle Library