Primary & Secondary Sources

Introduction

Primary sources are the original materials or evidence to be analyzed, evaluated, contextualized, or synthesized in the research process. Secondary Sources analyze, evaluate, contextualize, or synthesize evidence. They often give secondhand accounts based on engagement with primary sources. This chart offers distinctions by discipline:

Discipline

Example Fields

Primary Source Examples

Secondary Source Examples

Arts

Visual Arts, Performing Arts

Sketchbooks, scripts, plays, sculptures, music

Critical reviews in journal articles, publications about the authors/artists and their works

Humanities

Philosophy, History, Literature, Languages

Speeches, diaries, narratives, artifacts, interviews, short stories, original research

Reviews of books, literary criticisms, topical monographs, journal articles, annotated bibliographies, documentaries

Social Sciences

Business,

Psychology, Political Science, Education, Economics

Studies, lesson plans, case reports, surveys, market research and testing, statistical data, published results of clinical trials

Publications about the significance of research or experiments, reviews of results

Natural Sciences and Applied Sciences

Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Mathematics, Engineering, Medicine, Agriculture, Computer Science

Published results of experiments, observations, discoveries, technical reports, models, schematic drawings, specimens, designs

Publications about the significance of research  or experiments, reviews of results

It is important to note that the distinction between primary and secondary sources is contextual and you may not be able to tell solely based on document type. A document may be considered a primary source in one context and a secondary source in another. For example, a speech about the Declaration of Independence by a notable orator would be a secondary source for a scholar studying the philosophical origins of the document, but a primary source when studying how the Declaration's meaning has changed over time.

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Additional Questions and Help

If you tried to use this diagram and continue to have problems identifying what kind of sources you are working with, you could try asking a librarian or coming to a service desk for help.

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Primary and Secondary Research by the Teaching and Learning Team is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.