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HIST 504/622: U.S.-Central America Relations (Keeley): Types of Sources

An explanation of the difference between primary and secondary sources.

What Are Primary and Secondary Sources?

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

Primary Sources

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.

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 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, 1970-200" published in the journal Social Forces

Research versus Review

Scientific and other peer reviewed journals are excellent sources for primary research sources. However, not every article in those journals will be an article with original research. 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 is analysing and evaluating current research or investigations related to a specific topic, field, or problem. They are not primary sources since they review previously published material. They can be helpful 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 entitled 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 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 or Secondary: You Decide

The distinction between types of sources can get tricky, because a secondary source may also be a primary source. DoVeanna Fulton's book on slave narratives, for example, can be 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 slave narratives, the book would be a secondary source because Fulton is commenting on the narratives. If your assignment is to write a book review of Speaking Power, the book becomes a primary source, because you are commenting, evaluating, and discussing DoVeanna Fulton's 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. 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.

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 ideas. This is the reason that you may be advised not to include an encyclopedia article in a final bibliography.