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Understanding Nursing Research

This guide will show you how to tell if an article consists of primary research, if it uses quantitative or qualitative data, and more.

What is Primary Research?

The phrase "Primary" can mean something different depending on what subject you're in.

In History, for example, you might hear the phrase "primary sources." This means the researcher is looking for sources that date back to when an event occurred. Primary sources can be a diary, a photograph, or a newspaper clipping.

If this is the kind of research you're looking for, check out this research guide on how to find primary sources:

If you're in Nursing or another scientific field you're more likely to hear the phrase "Primary Research."

Primary Research refers to research that was conducted by the author of the article you're reading. So if you're reading an article and in the methodology section the author refers to recruiting participants, identifying a control group, etc. you can be pretty sure the author has conducted the research themselves.

When you're asked to find primary research, you're being asked to find articles describing research that was conducted by the authors.

Check out the video below for an explanation of the differences between primary and secondary research.


How can I tell if my article is "Primary Research"?

To determine if the article you're looking at is considered Primary Research, look for the following:

  • In the Abstract, can you find a description of research being conducted?
  • Read the Methodology section of the article:
    • Were participants recruited?
    • Were surveys distributed?

The main question to ask yourself is "Did the author conduct research, or did they read and synthesize other people's research?"

If you've found an article in CINAHL and you want to know if it's primary research, look under "Publication Type" to see if it's a research article.




This is not always 100% correct, though. To be sure, you should always read the Methodology section to understand what kind of article you're looking at.


If you're using PubMed, you can check the article's Keywords and Abstract for clues to see if the article is primary research, like in the article below:



Or you can check to see if the article includes a "Publication Type" section like this article:


The following Publication Types are usually considered Primary Research:

  • Adaptive Clinical Trial
  • Clinical Study
  • Clinical Trial
  • Controlled Clinical Trial
  • Equivalence Trial
  • Evaluation Studies
  • Observational Study
  • Pragmatic Clinical Trial
  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Twin Study

Remember, you will always need to read the Methodologies section of an article to be sure the article is an example of primary research!

Limiting your search to Primary Research

In certain databases you can specify that you're only interested in resources that are considered primary research.

Two of those databases are CINAHL and PubMed, which you can access here:


To limit your results to primary research in CINAHL, check the "Research Article" box on the homepage before you hit "Search"


This check box is helpful, but it isn't 100% correct, so always read the Methodology section of your article to determine what kind of article it is!

If you're conducting a search in PubMed and want to limit your results to a certain kind of article, you can enter your search terms on the homepage and click "Search."

Then, when you're on your results page, use the limiters on the left side of the screen to specify the "Article Type" you're interested in. Under "Article Types" click the "Customize..." link to see the full list of article types available to you.



Check any of the article types you're interested in (don't forget to scroll down on this list!) and then click the blue "Show" button at the bottom of the pop up window.

Now the Article Types you just selected should appear under the Article Types heading. Click on the article types you want to show up in your results list and your results will limit themselves to just those that meet your criteria.



Remember to read the article's Methodology section yourself before deciding whether or not it's Primary Research! These limits are great, but they aren't always 100% accurate.