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Prof. Baez - SOC101 Introduction to Sociology: Primary v Secondary Sources

Primary and Secondary Sources

Primary vs Secondary Sources

When evaluating the quality of the information you are using, it is useful to identify if you are using a Primary, Secondary, or Tertiary source. By doing so, you will be able recognize if the author is reporting on his/her own first hand experiences, or relying on the views of others.

Source Type Examples


A primary source is a first person account by someone who experienced or witnessed an event. This original document has not been previously published or interpreted by anyone else.

  • First person account of an event
  • First publication of a scientific study
  • Speech or lecture
  • Original artwork
  • Novel (fiction) or film
  • Handwritten manuscript
  • Letters between two people
  • A diary
  • Historical documents, e.g. Bill of Rights


A secondary source is one step removed from the primary original source. The author is reexamining, interpreting and forming conclusions based on the information that is conveyed in the primary source.

  • Journal article reporting on a scientific study
  • Newspaper and Magazine articles
  • Review of a music CD or art show
  • Critique of a work of fiction or film
  • Biography


A tertiary source is further removed from primary source. It leads the researcher to a secondary source, rather than to the primary source.

  • Indexes and Bibliography
  • Encyclopedias and Dictionaries
  • Library catalog
  • Most textbooks
  • Guidebooks

Popular vs Scholarly Sources

Video from the folks in the Kimbel Library at Coastal Carolina University explaining the difference between Popular and Scholarly sources.

How can I tell if something is a scholarly research article (primary source)?

The WebMD article linked above uses language that tells you it is not the original study but discussing research someone else has conducted:

  • "The findings suggests."
  • "They're acknowledging that..."
  • "The researchers said..."
  • "The researchers found that..."

The study WebMD is discussing is a scholarly source, but the WebMD article itself is not. It is a secondary source - one that summarizes original research. The article includes some publishing information about the original study that will help you find the research article.

From the WebMD article:

Use the information provided as search terms to find for the original study: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, November 3, 2014, Wig, brain and memory. This is available online (use the Journal Finder to see if it is available in a library database).

*There is nothing 'wrong' with the WebMD article, it is just not appropriate for this assignment.

Note the language in the research study that informs you that it is original research:

  • "We describe..."
  • "We characterize..."
  • "We use...
  • "We also observed..."
  • "We focused on..."

These phrases show the reader that the authors of the article are the same ones who conducted the study and are presenting their original research. Original research articles are often referred to as Scholarly, Peer-Reviewed or Professional sources. These articles will often begin with a background section summarizing previous research on the topic, but most of the article will be about the original study.

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