Finding and Identifying Original Research Articles in the Sciences

What is an original research article?

An original research article is a report of research activity that is written by the researchers who conducted the research or experiment. Original research articles may also be referred to as: “primary research articles” or “primary scientific literature.” In science courses, instructors may also refer to these as “peer-reviewed articles” or “refereed articles.”

Original research articles in the sciences have a specific purpose, follow a scientific article format, are peer reviewed, and published in academic journals.

Identifying Original Research: What to Look For

Purpose, Author, and Audience

Purpose

An "original research article" is an article that is reporting original research about new data or theories that have not been previously published. That might be the results of new experiments, or newly derived models or simulations. The article will include a detailed description of the methods used to produce them, so that other researchers can verify them. This description is often found in a section called "methods" or "materials and methods" or similar. Similarly, the results will generally be described in great detail, often in a section called "results."

Author

Since the original research article is reporting the results of new research, the authors should be the scientists who conducted that research. They will have expertise in the field, and will usually be employed by a university or research lab.

In comparison, a newspaper or magazine article (such as in The New York Times or National Geographic) will usually be written by a journalist reporting on the actions of someone else.

Audience

An original research article will be written by and for scientists who study related topics. As such, the article should use precise, technical language to ensure that other researchers have an exact understanding of what was done, how to do it, and why it matters. There will be plentiful citations to previous work, helping place the research article in a broader context. The article will be published in an academic journal, follow a scientific format, and undergo peer-review.

Structure of an Original Research Article

Original research articles in the sciences follow the scientific format. (This tutorial from North Carolina State University illustrates some of the key features of this format.)

Look for signs of this format in the subject headings or subsections of the article. You should see the following:

Title

Briefly states what the article is about.

Abstract

Summarizes the whole article.

Introduction

Describes the research question or hypothesis and the relevance or importance of the research. Provides and overview of related research and findings (this may be in a separate section called Literature Review).

Methods

Describes how the author(s) conducted the research (the methods and materials they used). This may also be called: Materials and Methods.

Results

Presents the results of the research – what the authors found.

Discussion

This is where the authors write about what they found and what they think it means (the interpretation of the results). Sometimes the Results and Discussions sections will be combined.

Conclusion

Summary of results and how/why they are important or significant. Should state the most important outcome of the study and to what extent the results addressed the research question. Includes recommendations for future research or actions. This section is sometimes combined with the Discussion section.

References

List of works cited by the author(s). May also  be called Works Cited or Bibliography.

Peer Review

Scientific research that is published in academic journals undergoes a process called "peer review."

The peer review process goes like this:

  • A researcher writes a paper and sends it in to an academic journal, where it is read by an editor
  • The editor then sends the article to other scientists who study similar topics, who can best evaluate the article
  • The scientists/reviewers examine the article's research methodology, reasoning, originality, and sginificance
  • The scientists/reviewers then make suggestions and comments to impove the paper
  • The original author is then given these suggestions and comments, and makes changes as needed
  • This process repeats until everyone is satisfied and the article can be published within the academic journal

For more details about this process see the Peer Reviewed Publications guide.

This journal article is an example. It was published in the journal Royal Society Open Science in 2015. Clicking on the button that says "Review History" will show the comments by the editors, reviewers and the author as it went through the peer review process. The "About Us" menu provides details about this journal; "About the journal" under that tab includes the statement that the journal is peer reviewed.

Articles that are NOT Original Research Articles (But might look like one!)

Review articles

There are a variety of article types published in academic, peer-reviewed journals, but the two most common are original research articles and review articles. They can look very similar, but have different purposes and structures.

Like original research articles, review articles are aimed at scientists and undergo peer-review. Review articles often even have “abstract,” “introduction,” and “reference” sections. However, they will not (generally) have a “methods” or “results” section because they are not reporting new data or theories. Instead, they review the current state of knowledge on a topic.

Press releases, newspaper or magazine articles

These won't be in a formal scientific format or be peer reviewed. The author will usually be a journalist, and the audience will be the general public. Since most readers are not interested in the precise details of the research, the language will usually be nontechnical and broad. Citations will be rare or nonexistent.

Tips for Finding Original research Articles

Search for articles in one of the library databases recommend for your subject area. If you are using Google, try searching in Google Scholar instead and you will get results that are more likely to be original research articles than what will come up in a regular Google search!

For tips on using library databases to find articles, see our Library DIY guides.

Tips for Finding the Source of a News Report about Science

If you've seen or heard a report about a new scientific finding or claim, these tips can help you find the original source:

  • Often, the report will mention where the original research was published; look for sentences like "In an article published yesterday in the journal Nature..." You can use this to find the issue of the journal where the research was published, and look at the table of contents to find the original article.
  • The report will often name the researchers involved. You can search relevant databases for their name and the topic of the report to find the original research that way.
  • Sometimes you may have to go through multiple articles to find the original source. For example, a video or blog post may be based on a newspaper article, which in turn is reporting on a scientific discovery published in another journal; be sure to find the original research article.
  • Don't be afraid to ask a librarian for help!