Researchers use a variety of sources to gather information and evidence. They can be classified as primary and secondary sources. 

 

What is a primary source?

Primary sources give you direct, first-hand access to information about your research topic. They are direct witnesses to whatever phenomenon, event, or person you are studying. In other words, primary sources provide original, unfiltered information. 

They tend to be the main objects of your study, and any analysis directly comes from a primary source. 

Primary sources are particularly useful when you are studying something of the past. Since you, as the researcher, will never be able to witness the subject as it unravels, you instead rely on sources of that era produced by the people who did witness it. For example, if you are studying World War II, primary sources you can rely on are newspapers and letters written when it happened. 

The data collected in most cases of empirical research are also primary sources. These can be interviews, testimonies, reports, etc. 

Examples of primary sources: 

  • Empirical studies
  • Statistical data
  • Transcripts
  • Audio and video footage
  • Works of art
  • Letters
  • Memoirs, autobiographies 

 

What is a secondary source? 

Secondary resources analyze and interpret primary data. It is not first-hand raw data, but a discussion of existing sources. It is a step away from primary data: instead of gaining information from an original source about your topic, you instead encounter the work of a researcher who has already studied it. Secondary sources are distilled in that sense, providing you a point of reference through someone else’s eyes. These kinds of sources usually analyzes, interprets or summarizes existing data. 

Secondary sources, while not directly analyzed, are often used as reference points to strengthen your argument, or counter an existing argument about your subject. 

 

Examples of secondary sources:  

  • Books, articles, papers providing comprehensive summaries 
  • Documentaries and films about the topic of study 
  • Encyclopedias and textbooks 
  • Literature reviews of your topic 

 

How do I identify one from the other? 

If the author of the source had a hand in creating it, then you’re looking at a primary source. 

If the author of the source is not directly involved in its creation, and is simply analyzing it, then you’re looking at a secondary source. 

Sometimes secondary sources can also double up as primary sources. So it entirely depends on what is being studied. For example, if one of your sources is a WW2 documentary, it can be a secondary source for the study about the war, but it is a primary source for a study about war documentaries.

 

 

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