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Information Skills - Primary Sources vs. Secondary Sources

Why Do Good Researchers Use Primary Sources?


Original, first-hand information about a topic that comes from live events, experiences or experiments in which the author was directly involved   Compiled, second-hand information about a topic that comes from events, experiences, or experiments to which the author(s) had no direct connection

Types of sources: 

  • Personal Writing, such as Memoirs, Journals, Diaries, Letters, Autobiographies, etc.
  • Direct Communication, such as Speeches, Interviews, Live Presentations
  • Original Research Reports, such as published Experiment Results or Case Studies
  • Newspaper or magazine articles that describe current events

Types of sources: 

  • Materials about a topic, such as history books, biographies, most mainstream "pop-science" books, documentaries, etc.
  • Summaries, Literature Reviews, Meta-Analysis of other researchers' experiment results
  • Newspaper or magazine articles that mention the published or intellectual work of others
Frequent terms in academic sources: Original research, case study   Frequent terms in academic sources: Summary, literature review, analysis

To identify a primary or secondary source, ask yourself these questions:

  • Who are the authors and what kind of organization do they work for? Most authoritative sources have the author and their professional affiliations listed at the beginning of the document.  If the work is completed by practicing professionals in a discipline, it is more likely to be a primary source.  If the work is completed by a single journalist or writer for a newspaper or magazine, it is more likely to a secondary source.
  • How did they discover this information?  The article may be labeled with the term "original research" or "review" to show how they compiled the content.  Read the abstract or first few paragraphs.  Does it describe a test with methods and results, or does it only mention studies conducted by other people?

Are all scholarly publications considered primary sources?

No!  Articles can look almost identical, but still differ in being primary or secondary.  Let's look at two examples.

Milojevich, H. M., & Lukowski, A. F. (2016). Sleep and mental health in undergraduate students with generally healthy sleep habits. PLoS ONE, 11 (6). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0156372

Hershner, S. D., & Chervin, R. D. (2014). Causes and consequences of sleepiness among college students. Nature and Science of Sleep, 6, 73-84. doi:10.2147/NSS.S62907 

  • What type of journal published the article?
  • Who are the authors and what kind of organization do they work for?
  • How did they discover this information?

What do both articles have in common?

  • Both articles were published in open-access scholarly journals.
  • Both are high quality examples of how a researcher can approach answering a research question.
  • Both articles have two authors who are affiliated with a research university.

How do the two articles differ?

  • The first article is a PRIMARY source.  It answered a research question using original, first-hand experience, in this case by developing a questionnaire on sleep, getting feedback from students, and analyzing the feedback.  One of the easiest ways to determine a primary source is to look at the headings used in the article. Methods, Results, and Discussion sections refer to an original experiment.
  • The second article is a SECONDARY source.  It answered a research question using OTHER people's original, first-hand experience.  Since the authors conducted no experiments themselves, the headings of the article refer to sub-topics instead of steps in the research process.