Primary and secondary sources

Research Steps 4

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, eyewitness accounts, results of experiments, statistical data, pieces of creative writing, and art objects. In the natural and social sciences, primary sources are often empirical studies -- research where an experiment was done or a direct observation was made. The results of empirical studies 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 secondary source. Secondary source materials can be articles in newspapers or popular magazines, book or movie reviews, or articles found in scholarly journals that discuss or evaluate someone else's original research.

Research versus Review Articles

Although scientific and other peer reviewed journals are excellent sources for primary research, not every article in those journals will be a research article. Content may also include book reviews, editorials, and review articles. Since review articles include citations and are often quite lengthy, on first glance, they can be difficult to differentiate from original research articles. Since the authors of review articles are discussing, analyzing, and evaluating others' research, not reporting on their own research, review articles are not primary sources. They can be of great value, however, for identifying potentially good primary sources.

Elements of a Research Article

Primary research articles can be identified by a commonly used format. Look for sections titled Methods (sometimes with variations, such as Materials and Methods), Results (usually followed with charts and statistical tables), and Discussion. Since a review of the literature is part of the research process, the article will also include bibliographic citations and a Works Cited section at the end. An Abstract at the beginning will summarize the research findings and give you a good sense of the kind of article that is being presented, so this is an excellent tool to use to determine if the item is a review article or a research article. 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, however, may not include any of those elements. In those cases look at the words the authors use, phrases such as "we tested"  and "in our study, we measured" will tell you that the article is reporting on original research.

Examples

Primary Source Secondary Source
Lincoln's Gettysburg Address The Words That Remade America
The poem "Human Chain" by Seamus Heaney "His Nibs: Self-Reflexivity and the Significance of Translation in Seamus Heaney's Human Chain." by Michael Parker in Irish University Review (November 2012), pp. 327-350.
The table "Number of Offenses Known to the Police, Universities and Colleges" in the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports, 2012 An article in the Ithacan entitled "Study finds eastern colleges often conceal campus crime"
Mackey, S., Carroll, I., Emir, B., Murphy, T., Whalen, E., & Dumenci, L. (2012). Sensory pain qualities in neuropathic pain. The Journal Of Pain, 13(1), 58-63. doi:10.1016/j.jpain.2011.10.002
[a study published in a peer reviewed journal]
Vance, E. (2014). Where Does It Hurt?. Discover, 35(4), 28-30.
[an article in a magazine that includes quotes from Sean Mackey, author of the peer reviewed article on pain]
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 2004 Democratic National Convention, found in The New York Times A 2004 editorial in The New York Times entitled "Everybody Loves Obama"

Primary Sources in the Library Catalog

To find primary sources in the Library catalog, do an Advanced Catalog Search and enter keywords such as sources, journals, correspondence, personal narratives, diaries, papers, letters, documents, interviews, speeches, or pamphlets. Combine any of these terms with your subject.

Even more confusion

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 critique Garry Wills' thesis or write a book review of Lincoln at Gettysburg, the book becomes a primary source, because you are commenting, evaluating, and discussing Garry Wills' ideas.

 

You can't always determine if something is primary or secondary just because of the 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. 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 in addition to primary and secondary. These are sources that provide a short overview or brief summary of a topic, often digesting other sources or repackaging ideas related to a specific topic. Chief examples are wikipedia entries, articles in encyclopedias, and chapters in textbooks. This is the reason that you may be advised not to include an encyclopedia article in a final bibliography.