Primary vs. Secondary Sources

It is important to distinguish between primary and secondary sources when researching. You may be required to use only one type of source or both, depending upon the assignment and the discipline.

Primary sources are original, first-hand materials. A primary source may be a government document, census data, a short story, old letters, or a piece of art. In your work, you are to analyse and interpret these materials, explaining their meanings.

Secondary sources are articles, editorials, textbooks, books, and other published materials that may interpret data, works of literature, ideas or events. This literature offers a wider understanding of a topic and how it is analysed in the discipline. You should refer to both interpretation and evidence presented in secondary materials.

If you are required to use both types of sources, secondary sources help you to develop your own analysis of primary sources. 

Different disciplines use different types of primary and secondary sources.

An English Essay:

For example, for an essay on Sir Walter Scott’s poetry, the primary sources are the poems; the secondary sources might be biographies of Scott or literary criticism of his work.


An Environmental Science Paper:

For an essay on acid rain, primary sources would be government documents and scientific reports; secondary sources would include journal articles and texts that interpret the facts found in these documents.

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