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This post is part of “The Cafe Scholar’s Guide to Writing a Research Paper” series, which walks you through the process of writing awesome research papers step by step from start to finish. When you are done figuring out the difference between a primary source and a secondary source, be sure to check out the rest of the series!
Do you know what a primary source is? If so, awesome! If not, you’re not alone. When I was teaching a freshman class last semester, I realized many of my students didn’t know what I meant by “primary source” on their research papers. This is really important for academic writing, so I thought I would give you a brief introduction to the difference between a primary source and a secondary source.
Some of my students thought that the primary source was the most important source in their paper or the source they were going to base most of their paper on, and the secondary sources were any other sources they planned to use. That’s not what primary source or secondary source means, so I’m hoping this post will clear that up. Whether a source is considered primary, secondary, or tertiary has nothing to do with how you will use it in your paper. Instead, it has to do with how close that source is to the event or subject being studied.
A primary source is a source directly connected to the event that happened (or is happening). For example, a letter or diary from the Civil War era is a primary source. A photograph or piece of artwork would be a primary source, as would an interview or the writings of someone from that time period. To go back to my American Civil War example, a collection of sermons from a preacher from that era would be a primary source.
If you are writing about science, math, economics or statistics, your field notes, data collected or a particular statistic would be a primary source.
If you are writing about literature or about an author, the literature would also be a primary source. If I am writing a paper about the Hunger Games (yes, I did), I can’t get any closer to the subject than the books and movies themselves. If I were to write a paper about Suzanne Collins, then the Hunger Games books would still be a primary source, since they are her writings.
If you are writing about art or an artist, the artwork itself would be considered a primary source.
If you are writing about religion, a particular scripture might be a primary source.
A secondary source is a source written by a scholar based on a study of the primary source(s). Secondary sources are very important because we don’t do scholarship in a vacuum; we want to understand what someone else has learned from a source. Also, they can help us learn from primary sources we might not have access to, and bring together information from several primary sources and tie it together.
In science or education, a secondary source might bring together evidence from several research projects to come to a conclusion.
In literature, an analysis of the book, a book review, or biography of the author would be a secondary source. (But an autobiography written by the author herself would be a…you guessed it, primary source!).
In art, a book, article, or review about the work of art or a biography of the artist would be a secondary source.
In biblical studies, a commentary or sermon on a scripture passage would be a secondary source.
Maybe you hadn’t even heard of that one! A tertiary source brings together information from multiple secondary sources to come to a conclusion. The writer of the tertiary source isn’t accessing the primary source material; everything is coming secondhand, so when you read a tertiary source, you are getting it third hand. Most lower level textbooks and encyclopedias fall into this category. You can tell by looking at what the writer has cited. Is she citing a combination of primary and secondary sources? Then the article or book is a secondary source. Is she citing only secondary sources? Then the article is a tertiary source.
Yes, a source can be both primary and secondary, depending on the context, but not usually both at the same time. It depends on how it is being used. Here are a few examples:
Religious Studies: If you are writing a paper about the Gospel of John, a sermon on the Gospel of John from the 1950s is a secondary source; that sermon is talking about the primary source, which in this case would be the scripture itself. On the other hand, if you are writing a paper about religious views in the 1950s, a sermon from that time period would be a primary source, since it was written in a religious context during that time period for the purpose of teaching religion.
Literary History: If you are writing about Jane Austen, a review of one of her books might be a secondary source. But if you are writing about how views of Jane Austen changed over time, that same review would be a primary source since it is a “real-time” depiction of someone’s view of Jane Austen.
When you wrote your first essays in elementary and middle school, most of your sources were tertiary: textbooks and encyclopedias. You started to use some secondary sources, such as biographies, as well. You might encounter some primary sources inside your textbooks, but you typically wouldn’t be expected to use them in an assignment. The only primary sources you might use would be in book reports, where the book you read would be your primary source. (Also, no one calls it that in elementary school. ? ).
In high school, you were still using a combination of secondary sources and tertiary sources, but there would be more primary and secondary sources; the balance shifted.
In college and graduate level writing, the balance shifts again. You should be using a combination of primary and secondary sources, with gradually more and more on the primary source side the further you go in your academic career. You typically won’t use tertiary sources in academic writing at this point; you will use them to get a general idea of the topic and figure out which secondary sources to look into, but it will be the primary and secondary sources quoted and cited in your research. On the other hand, you are pretty much always going to be using secondary sources. As I mentioned above, we don’t do research in a vacuum; even at the most advanced level we always need to know what other scholars are saying about the topic. And since we can’t focus on every single detail at once, secondary sources allow us to benefit from someone else’s research in a particular area.
I know I say this all the time (I think in every one of these research paper posts…), but when you are working on a research paper or project, you always want to check your professor’s requirements. Some professors will require you to include a certain number or certain percentage of primary sources. This will depend on the discipline and the level of the class.