Jan 16, 2023

Primary vs Secondary Sources: Main Differences

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Knowing the differences between primary and secondary sources will enrich your paper’s research foundation.

When conducting research for an academic paper, it is important to understand the differences between primary and secondary sources. 

Primary sources are original, firsthand accounts of an event or phenomenon, while secondary sources are any materials that are not primary sources, such as books or articles that analyze or interpret primary sources. 

This article will explain the differences between primary and secondary sources and provide examples to help the reader understand the importance of using both types of sources in a research paper.

What is a primary source?

Primary sources are first-hand accounts of an event or phenomenon. They provide an original, firsthand perspective on a topic and are considered to be the most reliable source of information. 

General examples of primary sources

  • Original documents such as letters, diaries, and government records
  • Audio and visual recordings such as photographs, videos, and recordings of speeches
  • Physical objects such as artifacts, tools, or works of art
  • Research studies or experiments that have been conducted by the researcher
  • Original research articles in scientific journals
  • Photographs or videos of events
  • Speeches or interviews given by experts in the field

Examples of primary sources by academic discipline

DisciplinePrimary source
Natural/Physical SciencesStatistical data
Empirical studies
Published original literature
HistoryLetters and diaries
Photographs and recordings (audio or video)
Official documents and records
Physical artifacts and relics
Social Sciences Transcripts of interviews
Newspapers and magazines
Social media comments/posts
Political Science and LawCourt documents
Legal briefs
Judicial opinions
Government records
Art and LiteraturePublished or found novels and poems
Original art pieces
Photographs
Films and performances

What is a secondary source?

Secondary sources are any materials that are not primary sources. They are materials created after an event or phenomenon has occurred and provide an analysis or interpretation of primary sources. 

Examples of secondary sources

  • Books and articles that analyze or interpret primary sources
  • Biographies and other works that provide background information on a historical figure or event
  • Reviews and critiques of primary sources
  • Literature reviews or meta-analyses that summarize and synthesize primary research
  • Textbooks or other educational materials that provide background information on a topic
  • Historical analyses or interpretations of primary documents
  • A research article that uses primary sources for analysis or comparison

Using Both Primary and Secondary Sources in Your Research

Both primary and secondary sources are essential to creating novel and interesting academic research and writing. When conducting research, it is important to use a combination of primary and secondary sources. Primary sources should be used to provide evidence for your arguments and conclusions, while secondary sources should be used to provide context and background information.

For example, if you were writing a paper on the causes of the American Civil War, you would use primary sources such as speeches, newspaper articles, and government documents from the time period to provide evidence for your arguments. You would also use secondary sources such as historical works and journal articles to provide this context and background information and create a deeper understanding of the primary sources.

It’s also important to note that not all primary sources are equally reliable, and thus authors should evaluate the sources they use carefully. Some primary sources may be biased or inaccurate, so take this into account when using them in your research.

In summary, primary sources provide firsthand information about a topic and are considered to be the most reliable sources of information, while secondary sources provide interpretation, analysis, or commentary on primary sources. When conducting research, it is important to use a combination of primary and secondary sources and to evaluate the sources you use carefully.

Sources That Could be Either Primary or Secondary

It’s important to note that the distinction between primary and secondary sources is not always clear-cut, and some sources may be considered primary or secondary depending on the context in which they are used, such as the research question. If the person, context, or technique that produced the source is your main focus, it is a primary source. If it is supportive of your main focus, it is usually a secondary source.

Below are some sources that could be considered either primary or secondary.

Reviews and essays

If your paper is on the topic of the author Don DeLillo, a New Yorker review of his most recent novel would be a secondary source. But if you are writing with a focus on how critics have interpreted the author’s work over the years, the same review could be a primary source.

Newspaper and magazine articles

If your study’s goal is to analyze the government’s policy on the environment, a magazine piece about environmental policy is a secondary source. But if your objective is to assess how print media covers political issues, the magazine article is likely a primary source.

Documentaries and short films

If you are researching the rise of the UK’s trance music scene in the 1990s, a documentary on the subject would be a secondary source. However, if your paper is about the “cinema verite” style used in independent films, the same documentary could be a primary source.

How to Determine Whether a Source is Primary or Secondary

To determine if a source should be considered primary or secondary in your own study, ask yourself some basic questions:

  • Do I want to evaluate the source itself (primary) or only use it to provide supplementary/background info (secondary)? 
  • Is the information provided by the source wholly original (primary) or is it comprised of information about or obtained from another source (secondary)?
  • Does the source come from a person who is directly involved physically or in some other way in the event (primary) or does it come from a “second-hand” source (secondary)?

Citing Primary vs Secondary Sources

To cite a primary source, you would typically include the author’s name, the title of the work, the publication information, and the page number(s) where the information can be found. For example, if you were citing a primary source article written by John Smith, the citation might look like this:

Smith, John. “The Impact of Climate Change on Agriculture.” Science, vol. 325, no. 5945, 2010, pp. 815-818.

To cite a secondary source, you would typically include the author’s name, the title of the work, the publication information, and the page number(s) where the information can be found. For example, if you were citing a secondary source book written by Jane Doe, the citation might look like this:

Doe, Jane. The History of Climate Change. University Press, 2012, pp. 45-50.

It is important to note that the citation format you use will depend on the citation style that your instructor or publisher requires. Common citation styles include APA style, MLA style, and Chicago style.

Should you use primary sources or secondary sources?

As we have mentioned, the vast majority of academic studies use both primary and secondary sources. They work together to help create a compelling argument from multiple angles. While primary sources are the bedrock of evidence, secondary sources can show how this work impacts other fields and how other literature supports its findings and impact. 

What are primary sources used for?

Primary sources provide the cornerstone of original research. They aid the study in:

  • Proposing novel theories and discoveries 
  • Providing concrete and compelling evidence 
  • Granting authority to a given proposition or argument

If your paper does not use any primary sources, it will likely be considered unoriginal and not compelling in its findings as it solely uses the work of other commenters and critics.

What are secondary sources used for?

While primary sources prove a solid foundation for your arguments with first=hand accounts, secondary sources give readers a wider view of your topic and by giving them the perspectives and opinions of other researchers. Furthermore, secondary sources bring together a number of primary sources that would otherwise be difficult for the author alone to collect. These sources accomplish several objectives:

  • Give background and context on a specific or more general topic (e.g., the review of relevant literature in a scientific study provides conclusions from similar studies)
  • Balance and contrast your arguments with those of other studies and researchers
  • Centralize expert analyses of facts and arguments from primary sources that cannot be easily gathered by the individual author or researcher (e.g., translation and interpretation of information in an archaic language). 

When conducting a standalone literature review, the author can utilize secondary sources to give a more complete overview of a research topic. Moreover, the original primary source that was analyzed by the secondary source can also be cited in the same study if the author wishes to provide multiple layers of evidence. 

Preparing Your Sources for Publication

Keep in mind that all primary and secondary sources must be cited to avoid plagiarism. Use Wordvice’s free citation generators to properly cite all your sources.

And before you submit to your target journal, be sure to get proofreading services from Wordvice, including paper editing and manuscript editing services.

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