Primary and secondary sources

When you do research, you have to gather information and evidence from a variety of sources.

Primary sources provide raw information and first-hand evidence. Examples include interview transcripts, statistical data, and works of art. A primary source gives you direct access to the subject of your research.

Secondary sources provide second-hand information and commentary from other researchers. Examples include journal articles, reviews, and academic books. A secondary source describes, interprets, or synthesizes primary sources.

Primary sources are more credible as evidence, but good research uses both primary and secondary sources.

What is a primary source?

A primary source is anything that gives you direct evidence about the people, events, or phenomena that you are researching. Primary sources will usually be the main objects of your analysis.

If you are researching the past, you cannot directly access it yourself, so you need primary sources that were produced at the time by participants or witnesses (e.g. letters, photographs, newspapers).

If you are researching something current, your primary sources can either be qualitative or quantitative data that you collect yourself (e.g. through interviews, surveys, experiments) or sources produced by people directly involved in the topic (e.g. official documents or media texts).

Primary sources
Research fieldPrimary source
History
  • Letters and diaries
  • Photographs and video footage
  • Official documents and records
  • Physical objects
Art and literature
  • Novels and poems
  • Paintings and art installations
  • Films and performances
Communication and social studies
  • Interview transcripts
  • Recordings of speeches
  • Newspapers and magazines
  • Social media posts
Law and politics
  • Court records
  • Legal texts
  • Government documents
Sciences
  • Empirical studies
  • Statistical data

What is a secondary source?

A secondary source is anything that describes, interprets, evaluates, or analyzes information from primary sources. Common examples include:

  • Books, articles and documentaries that synthesize information on a topic
  • Synopses and descriptions of artistic works
  • Encyclopedias and textbooks that summarize information and ideas
  • Reviews and essays that evaluate or interpret something

When you cite a secondary source, it’s usually not to analyze it directly. Instead, you’ll probably test its arguments against new evidence or use its ideas to help formulate your own.

What can proofreading do for your paper?

Scribbr editors not only correct grammar and spelling mistakes, but also strengthen your writing by making sure your paper is free of vague language, redundant words and awkward phrasing.

See editing example

Primary and secondary source examples

Primary and secondary source examples
Primary sourceSecondary source
NovelArticle analyzing the novel
PaintingExhibition catalog explaining the painting
Letters and diaries written by a historical figureBiography of the historical figure
Essay by a philosopherTextbook summarizing the philosopher’s ideas
Photographs of a historical eventDocumentary about the historical event
Government documents about a new policyNewspaper article about the new policy
Music recordingsAcademic book about the musical style
Results of an opinion pollBlog post interpreting the results of the poll
Empirical studyLiterature review that cites the study

Examples of sources that can be primary or secondary

A secondary source can become a primary source depending on your research question. If the person, context, or technique that produced the source is the main focus of your research, it becomes a primary source.

Documentaries

If you are researching the causes of World War II, a recent documentary about the war is a secondary source. But if you are researching the filmmaking techniques used in historical documentaries, the documentary is a primary source.

Reviews and essays

If your paper is about the novels of Toni Morrison, a magazine review of one of her novels is a secondary source. But if your paper is about the critical reception of Toni Morrison’s work, the review is a primary source.

Newspaper articles

If your aim is to analyze the government’s economic policy, a newspaper article about a new policy is a secondary source. But if your aim is to analyze media coverage of economic issues, the newspaper article is a primary source.

How to tell if a source is primary or secondary

To determine if something can be used as a primary or secondary source in your research, there are some simple questions you can ask yourself:

  • Does this source come from someone directly involved in the events I’m studying (primary) or from another researcher (secondary)?
  • Am I interested in analyzing the source itself (primary) or only using it for background information (secondary)?
  • Does the source provide original information (primary) or does it comment upon information from other sources (secondary)?

If you’re still not sure, the video gives more examples to help you understand the difference between primary and secondary sources.

Primary vs secondary sources: which is better?

Most research uses both primary and secondary sources. They complement each other to help you build a convincing argument. Primary sources are more credible as evidence, but secondary sources show how your work relates to existing research.

What do you use primary sources for?

Primary sources are the foundation of original research. They allow you to:

  • Make new discoveries
  • Provide credible evidence for your arguments
  • Give authoritative information about your topic

If you don’t use any primary sources, your research may be considered unoriginal or unreliable.

What do you use secondary sources for?

Secondary sources are good for gaining a full overview of your topic and understanding how other researchers have approached it. They often synthesize a large number of primary sources that would be difficult and time-consuming to gather by yourself. They allow you to:

  • Gain background information on the topic
  • Support or contrast your arguments with other researchers’ ideas
  • Gather information from primary sources that you can’t access directly (e.g. private letters or physical documents located elsewhere)

When you conduct a literature review, you can consult secondary sources to gain a thorough overview of your topic. If you want to mention a paper or study that you find cited in a secondary source, seek out the original source and cite it directly.

Remember that all primary and secondary sources must be correctly cited to avoid plagiarism.

Is this article helpful?
Raimo Streefkerk

Raimo has a bachelor's and master's degree and has written several papers and theses. He likes to share his knowledge by writing helpful articles.

7 comments

Taylor
September 9, 2019 at 6:56 AM

This is so helpful, when writing I was wondering if I should trust and sites like this when I stumbled along this one it blew my mind thank you so much hope you keep writing

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Paul
August 7, 2019 at 7:55 PM

This article states: "When you conduct a literature review, you will mainly cite secondary sources". This is very much not the case!

You have probably heard that you cannot cite Wikipedia? Some think this is because the information is unreliable or not scientific, or simply not credible because anyone can edit it. This is not so! Nature has shown several times that Wikipedia is actually the most accurate encyclopedia.

So why can / should you not cite Wikipedia? Because it is a secondary source. You should use secondary sources during your literature review. But when you want to cite a study, you should always consult the original (primary) source and cite this directly.

The exception? When secondary sources go beyond merely reviewing other sources, and draw their own conclusions. An example would be citing conclusions such as: "overall the literature is incoherent", "there is a gap in research on ...", "future research should focus on ...", etc.

If you do cite secondary sources that describe primary sources, what the reader will read is: "the author says that someone else said that another person said that...".

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Shona McCombes
Shona McCombes (Scribbr-team)
August 12, 2019 at 6:57 PM

Hi Paul, thanks for your comment! You're right that you should always consult the primary source when possible. In some disciplines, such as history and literary studies, literature reviews usually focus on secondary sources (i.e. scholarly books and articles, as opposed to archival documents or artistic works). But it's true that in scientific disciplines, you should cite primary sources (original empirical studies) in your literature review. The article has been updated to reflect this :)

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Joanna
June 5, 2019 at 5:13 AM

Do you believe thorough analysis calls for a combination of primary and secondary sources.

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shivani vara
January 28, 2019 at 8:17 PM

Hi Raimo! I found this page very helpful and would like to reference you in my work. What is your surname so I can give you credit for this?

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Raimo Streefkerk
Raimo Streefkerk (Scribbr-team)
January 28, 2019 at 10:17 PM

Hi Shivani,

I'm glad I am able to help you with this article!
My full name is Raimo Streefkerk :-)

Cheers,
Raimo

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sheryl
January 22, 2019 at 1:50 PM

How can you Use it well to cater your educational needs?

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