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Asian Studies: Primary vs. Secondary Sources

Primary or Secondary

Primary or Secondary: You Decide

The distinction between types of sources can get tricky, because a secondary source may also be a primary source. The distinction may depend on how you are using the source and the nature of your research.

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. In contrast, scholarly journals include research articles with primary materials, but they also have review articles that are not, or in some disciplines include articles where scholars are looking at primary source materials and coming to new conclusions.

What is a Primary Source?

A primary source is an original object or document -- the raw material or first-hand information, source material that is closest to what is being studied.

Primary sources vary by discipline and can 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.

Discipline Primary Source Secondary Source
History Slave narratives preserved on microfilm. The book Speaking power : Black feminist orality in women’s narratives of slavery by DoVeanna Fulton.
Art American photographer Man Ray's photograph of a flat-iron called “Le Cadeau” (The Gift) Peggy Schrock's article called "Man Ray's Le cadeau: the unnatural woman and the de-sexing of modern man" published in Woman's Art Journal.
Psychology An experimental test of three methods of alcohol risk reduction with young adults, Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology A review of the literature on college student drinking intervention which uses the article in an analysis entitled: Individual-level interventions to reduce college student drinking: A meta-analytic review, published in the journal Addictive Behaviors.
Political Science U.S. Government Census data An article which used samples of census data entitled: "Who is Headed South?: U.S. Migration Trends in Black and White, 1970-2000" published in the journal Social Forces.

The below material was adapted from the excellent explanation written by John Henderson found on Ithaca College's library website and is used with permission.