Primary and secondary sources

For some research projects, it is important (or you may be required) to use primary sources, instead of or in addition to secondary sources. So what’s the difference?

Primary sources

A primary source is an original object or document — the raw material or first-hand information.

Primary sources include historical and legal documents, eye witness accounts, results of an experiment, statistical data, pieces of creative writing, and art objects. In the natural and social sciences, the results of an experiment or study are typically found in scholarly articles or papers delivered at conferences, so those articles and papers that present the original results are considered primary sources.

Secondary sources

A secondary source is something written about a primary source. Secondary sources include comments on, interpretations of, or discussions about the original material. You can think of secondary sources as second-hand information. If I tell you something, I am the primary source. If you tell someone else what I told you, you are the secondard source. Secondary source materials can be articles in newspapers or popular magazines, book or movie reviews, or articles found in scholarly journals that evaluate or criticize someone else’s original research.

Research versus Review Articles

Scientific and other peer reviewed journals are excellent sources for primary research sources. However, not every article in those journals will be research articles. Some will include book reviews and other materials that are more obviously secondary sources. More difficult to differentiate from original research articles are review articles. Both types of articles will end with a list of References (or Works Cited). Review articles are often as lengthy or even longer that original research articles. What the authors of review articles are doing in analysing and evaluating current research and investigations related to a specific topic, field, or problem. They are not primary sources since they review previously published material. They can be of great value for identifying potentially good primary sources, but they aren’t primary themselves.

Primary research articles can be identified by a commonly used format. If an article contains the following elements, you can count on it being a primary research article. Look for sections titled Methods (sometimes with variations, such as Materials and Methods), Results (usually followed with charts and statistical tables), and Discussion. You can also read the abstract to get a good sense of the kind of article that is being presented. If it is a review article instead of a research article, the abstract should make that pretty clear. If there is no abstract at all, that in itself may be a sign that it is not a primary resource. Short research articles, such as those found in Science and similar scientific publications that mix news, editorials, and forums with research reports, may not include any of those elements. In those cases look at the words the authors use, phrases such as “we tested,” “we used,” and “in our study, we measured” will tell you that the article is reporting on original research.


Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address Garry Wills’ book Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America
The poem “Field Work” by Seamus Heaney “A Cold Eye Cast Inward: Seamus Heaney’s Field Work.” by George Cusack in New Hibernia Review (2002 Autumn), pp. 53-72.
The figures for Ithaca College found in a table of “Number of Offenses Known to the Police, Universities and Colleges” in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, 2002 An article in the Ithacan entitled “Study finds eastern colleges often conceal campus crime”
The lyrics of 2 Live Crew’s album As Nasty As They Wanna Be The article “Discouraging “Objectionable” Music Conent: Litigation, Legislation, Economic Pressure, and More Speech” found in Communications & the Law, April 2003 discussing 2 Live Crew’s lyrics.
Cynthia Scheibe’s doctoral dissertation on the developmental differences in children’s reasoning about Santa Claus An article in Parents Magazine discussing experts’ views on the harm of lying to children about Santa Claus
The text of Barack Obama’s keynote address to the Democratic National Convention, found in The New York Times An editorial in The New York Times entitled Everybody Loves Obama

The distinction between types of sources can get tricky, because a secondary source may also be a primary source. Garry Wills’ book about Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, for example, can looked at as both a secondary and a primary source. The distinction may depend on how you are using the source and the nature of your research. If you are researching Abraham Lincoln, the book would be a secondary source because WIlls is offering his opinions about Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address. If your assignment is to write a book review of Lincoln at Gettysburg, the book becomes a primary source, because you are commenting, evaluating, and discussing Garry Wills’ ideas.Where the confusion begins

You can’t always determine if something is primary or secondary just because of source it is found in. Articles in newspapers and magazines are usually considered secondary sources. However, if a story in a newspaper about the Iraq war is an eyewitness account, that would be a primary source. If the reporter, however, includes additional materials he or she has gathered through interviews or other investigations, the article would be a secondary source. An interview in the Rolling Stone with Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes would be a primary source, but a review of the latest Black Crowes album would be a secondary source. In contrast, scholarly journals include research articles with primary materials, but they also have review articles that are not.

For your thinking and not just to confuse you even further, some experts include tertiary sources as an additional distinction to make. These are sources that compile or, especially, digest other sources. Some reference materials and textbooks are considered tertiary sources when their chief purpose is to list or briefly summarize or, from an even further removed distance, repackage of things or ideas. This is the reason that you may be advised not to include an encyclopedia article in a final bibliography.
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This document was re-printed with the kind permission of John Henderson. Original Source of the article is located here: