Primary vs Secondary Sources

by Jeremy M. Brown — last modified 2015-08-28T09:12:31-04:00

A primary source is an original object or document, such as the raw material from an experiment or a diary from someone during a particular time period.  Primary sources are necessary for the research process, both for humanities research and sciences, to understand the original information source, whether that’s an experiment, a painting, or an historical event. Primary sources include eyewitness accounts, creative writing, works of art, and empirical research studies.

A secondary source is any work that has been written about a primary source. Some examples include a book about Michelangelo’s artwork or a biography of a person. In the sciences, secondary sources include articles in scholarly and popular sources that discuss or evaluate someone else’s original research. The key difference between a primary and a secondary source is that there is some distance between the author of the secondary source and the main information being discussed.

Whether an item is a primary or secondary source can also depend on what your topic is.  For example, a biography of Bill Clinton would be a secondary source if you were writing a report on Bill Clinton.  However, it would be a primary source if you were writing about different types of biographies. This can be confusing, but the key point to remember is that a primary source provides direct evidence pertaining to your research topic, while a secondary source provides indirect evidence.

Here are some questions to ask that may help you determine whether you have a primary or secondary source:

  • Who created the item that you're looking at?
  • Why did they create the item?
  • Where did they get their information from?
  • What is their experience?
  • What are they trying to say?
  • What other sources might help you better understand the item?
  • How does this source relate to my research topic?

Examples of sources

HumanitiesSciences
Primary Source
  • Diaries, emails, and letters
  • Newspaper from the era, such as newspapers published during the Civil War
  • Government records (census, marriage, military)
  • Photographs, maps, postcards, posters, paintings, drawings, songs, plays, and stories
  • Recorded or transcribed speeches
  • Interviews with participants or witnesses or people who lived during a particular time period (e.g., World War II)
  • Published results of research or scientific experiments
  • Published results of clinical trials
  • Conference Proceedings
  • Dissertations
Secondary Source
  • Biographies
  • Histories
  • Literary Criticism
  • Book, Art, and Theater reviews
  • Newspaper articles that interpret
  • Publications about the significance of research or experiments
  • Analysis of a clinical trial
  • Review of several experiments or trials
  • Literature Review

Adapted from guides available from the Ithaca College Library, KU Writing Center, and BMCC Library