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?
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.
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.
|PRIMARY SOURCE||SECONDARY SOURCE|
|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.
© Copyright for this article belongs to Ithaca College.
This document was re-printed with the kind permission of John Henderson. Original Source of the article is located here: http://www.ithaca.edu/library/course/primary.html
In one recent post, we outlined how to find primary sources and how you might use them in your dissertation. Primary sources are distinct from secondary sources, another type of source that can help you in the dissertation writing process.
What are Secondary Sources?
Primary sources are, essentially, raw data and information, and the dissertation writer’s job is to process that information. Secondary sources are sources in which someone has analyzed primary sources or data. The University of Maryland library says that secondary sources are “interpretations and evaluations of primary sources. Secondary sources are not evidence, but rather commentary on and discussion of evidence.”
Secondary sources could include work by other scholars, including journal articles, books, and dissertations. They might also include non-fiction books and biographies that aren’t intended for academic readers, as well as other types of essay or commentary that describe and analyze primary sources.
How do I Find Secondary Sources?
A library is one of your best sources for secondary sources and all manner of dissertation help.
Once you have a dissertation topic, try using a keyword or subject search in your library catalog to find books related to your topic. Once you’ve used the catalog to locate a few books that might be useful to you, use their call numbers to locate them on the shelves. Be sure to take a look at books that are shelved near the one that you went looking for – since books are organized according to topic, it’s likely that you’ll find other useful secondary sources related to your topic that way.
Databases like Google Scholar and JSTOR are great resources for finding articles. Once you have a dissertation topic, use these sites to search for keywords or subjects related to your topic. A keyword or subject search on these sites will bring up scholarly articles that reference your search terms. You may have to do some digging through these search results to find those that are most closely related to your dissertation topic. A dissertation consultant can help you with this process. If you access JSTOR, Google Scholar, or similar sites via your school’s library, you should be able to access many of the articles that you’ll find there free of charge.
How can Secondary Sources Help My Dissertation?
Reading secondary sources can be a huge source of dissertation help: doing so will help you learn what other scholars and writers have to say about your dissertation topic. Once you understand what other scholarly work is out there, you can articulate how your dissertation will be different, how it will improve on the existing scholarship, and how it will make an important contribution to your field.
Using Secondary Sources in Literature Reviews
When you are writing your dissertation, you will likely include sections in which you talk about secondary sources. This is often referred to as the “literature review.” We’ve written about how to approach a literature review here. The literature review is where you demonstrate that you’ve done your homework and that you know what other authors have had to say about your dissertation topic. Writing about secondary sources in your dissertation has two major purposes: first, it lets you position yourself in a community of scholars. Second, it lets you explain how your dissertation will contribute to that community.
Secondary Sources can Provide Ideas for Dissertation Methods and Approaches
Secondary sources can also help with dissertation writing by giving you ideas for how to analyze your primary sources. Maybe the author of one of your secondary sources analyzes a primary source using a method that you find interesting and perceptive. You could take that method and apply it to your primary sources. Or perhaps the author of one of your secondary sources analyzes a primary source in a way that you think is off-base. You could write about that same primary source in your dissertation, but approach it from a new direction.
Need help finding and evaluating secondary sources? Dissertation Editor’s consultants can help you find the major secondary sources that are relevant to your topic and field, and assist you with the work of evaluating those sources. In addition, our dissertation editors can help you write effective literature reviews. Finally, when the time comes to file, you’ll want to make sure all of your secondary sources are cited accurately. Our dissertation formatting experts can make sure that your citations adhere to APA Style, Chicago/Turabian Style, MLA Style, Harvard Bluebook, or any other major citation style.