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2021 - PHCY 504 - Primary and Secondary Literature Tutorial: Scholarly Literature & Searching Library Databases

Created by Health Science Librarians

What is Scholarly Literature?

What is scholarly literature? 

Scholarly literature is

  • authored by credentialed professors, researchers, or other scholars in a field for scholars and researchers in that field -- a scholarly article will have a clearly defined author or authors and will usually indicate where the author is working and in what position.
  • peer-reviewed -- it has been vetted by experts in the field before publication; if the research method is not rigorous enough, it will not be published.
  • reviewed by an editorial board before publication -- a scholarly journal will have an editorial review board listed at the beginning of the journal; these are people who are generally associated with a university research center or scholarly research center.
  • published by a reputable publisher

Scholarly literature includes:

  • journal articles
  • books
  • conference proceedings

Scholarly literature does not include:

  • websites
  • magazines
  • personal communication
  • news articles

Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources


In general, scholarly information sources can be sorted into three types: primary, secondary, and tertiary.


Type of Source Definition Examples

Primary sources are original materials on which other research is based.


The works present new thinking/discoveries/results and unite them with the existing knowledge base. 

Conference papers


Technical Reports

Theses & dissertations

Journal articles reporting on primary studies (RCTs, observational studies, case-control studies, etc.)


Secondary sources are those which are published about the primary literature. 

They are sources that:

  • generalize, analyze, interpret, evaluate or otherwise “add value” to the original information,


  • simplify the process of finding and evaluating the primary literature. 

Review articles (systematic reviews, literature reviews, comprehensive narrative reviews, etc.)

Databases (PubMed, Embase, etc.)



Tertiary sources consist of information which is a distillation and collection of primary and secondary sources.

They aim to provide a broad overview of a topic, or data, already proven facts, and definitions, often presented in a convenient form. They provide no new information

Reference works (encyclopedias, textbooks, guides, handbooks)

Point of care resources (Micromedex, UpToDate, Facts & Comparisons)

You previously learned about tertiary resources, so this guide focuses on primary and secondary sources. 

Databases - PubMed & Embase

When searching for pharmacy-related scholarly information or literature, you will want to consider the following secondary sources: PubMed and Embase.

PubMed and Embase are the two major health sciences databases. PubMed has a slight focus on literature from the US, and Embase has a slight focus on literature from Europe and Japan. 

PubMed and Embase have a number of similarities. Both databases:

  • ​have millions of citations from thousands of journals
  • cover over 60 years (limited historical coverage dating to the 19th century)
  • use a controlled vocabulary for indexing literature: MeSH in PubMed, Emtree in Embase

However, there are some key differences between PubMed and Embase. 


  • is sponsored by the NIH and the National Library of Medicine
  • is freely available to everyone
  • contains MEDLINE plus ~6 months of new publications not yet indexed for MEDLINE


  • is sponsored by Elsevier, a publishing company based in the Netherlands
  • is subscription only (you may not have access at another institution or private company)
  • includes MEDLINE content and articles that are only indexed in Embase
  • includes more detailed drug indexing to make it easier to find drug literature ​

Primary and Secondary Literature - A Word of Caution

Once you've found your journal articles (primary and secondary literature), it's up to you to figure out how good the studies are. Less than ten percent of articles published in core medical journals are both high quality AND clinically useful. You'll need to be a discerning reader to determine the quality and significance of any literature you find in your searches. Later sessions of this course will focus on study design and critical appraisal of published studies.