Summarizing & Collating Scientific Data from Multiple Sources

Instructor: Amanda Robb

Amanda holds a Masters in Science from Tufts Medical School in Cellular and Molecular Physiology. She has taught high school Biology and Physics for 8 years.

In this lesson we'll learn how to organize information from multiple scientific sources. We'll look at how to summarize data from both primary and secondary sources in a meaningful way.

What Are Scientific Sources?

Imagine you've been assigned your first research project in college. Armed with an inquisitive mind and a student ID card for the library, you're ready to tackle your genetics assignment. However, when you arrive at the library, you realize a simple research paper on genetics isn't so simple after all. There are aisles and aisles of textbooks and endless pages of primary online sources. How is one supposed to organize so much information?

Scientists are faced with this task daily; they must read through seemingly endless reports of past information in order to synthesize new ideas. What is the first step in this process? To start any research project, you first need to identify your sources. In science, sources are information that you use to increase your knowledge on a topic.

Most sources in science are found in scientific journals

Primary & Secondary Sources

Primary sources are scientific articles published about experiments that include the original data. These are usually very specific and only cover one particular area of a topic. For example, research papers on genetics might include the role of specific genes or proteins in one particular type of cancer.

Secondary sources are articles or textbooks written by scientists that summarize information presented in primary sources. Review articles are usually a great place to start. These articles summarize a topic and what is known about it. They are generally higher level than a textbook and usually more current. However, if you need a basic overview of a topic with information that is tried and tested, textbooks can be a helpful secondary source. These are typically written by scientists and include information that has been repeatedly proven to hold true.

Organizing Information

Now that we know where to find information, what do you do when you have it? Start by reading the most general sources to get an understanding of your interest area. Textbooks, followed by review articles will provide an overview of current research. As more information is needed, you can search out primary articles. Let's look at an example of this in action.

Julia wants to research cancer for her genetics class. However, this is a very broad topic. She starts by reading her genetics textbook and decides to focus on the role of the immune system in cancer. Next, she needs to read up on what's been going on in the field. She reads a few current reviews on the topic, and now she is able to organize her paper. She decides to first discuss the interaction between immune and cancer cells and then delve into specific molecules that mediate these interactions. This is a common collation technique: start with a broad topic, then delve deeper into different subtopics.

As information gets more specific, Julia will need to research these factors independently by looking at primary articles on the topic. As she reads, she can organize her notes into sections that correspond to the sections in her paper.


Once Julia has found multiple sources and has organized her notes into sections, it's time to summarize what she's read. But how much detail is enough? How will Julia know what to include versus what to leave out? Summarizing, or describing the main points of a concept, is one of the hardest tasks in writing. To summarize, you need to have a good understanding of the topic. Simply listing details from another article won't be enough.


So what are some skills Julia can use to help her summarize all of the information she's read? First, Julia needs to look for patterns across the primary sources she's read. For example, if she's trying to create a section on molecules that help the immune system fight cancer, she should look for multiple studies that have found the same thing. She can summarize these results and explain that multiple studies show similar findings.

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