When it comes to research and inquiry, there are two types of sources: primary sources and secondary sources. Primary sources are first-hand accounts of a topic while secondary sources are any account of something that is not a primary source. Published research, newspaper articles, and other media are typical secondary sources. Secondary sources can, however, cite both primary sources and secondary sources.
Not all evidence is of equal value and weight. Data from a primary source is the ideal type of data to collect; the closer we can get to an original account of the target information or event the more accurate the information will be. Primary source data is particularly important when doing research or trying to gain a deep understanding of a situation as it contains the original or raw evidence. In comparison, secondary sources typically include information where people begin developing initial understandings of a topic and literature reviews. While both primary and secondary source data are used in research, new knowledge emerges from analysis of primary source data.
Let’s look at a fun example: the recent Super Bowl 50 game. As a researcher, I might be interested in learning what it was like to watch the game live. If I were to interview all the fans who were at the game or watched the game live on TV, we would have a primary source of people. However, if what we wanted to learn more about is the experience of playing in the game, clearly the players on the Broncos and Panthers would be our best primary source. If I wanted more data, I might also read interviews of players or blogs of people who attended the game for information about what the game was like. An auto-biography by a player in the super bowl would be a primary source while a biography on a player would be a secondary source. Within this same example, articles that have come out on the Super Bowl, whether they are based on primary or secondary sources, are likely secondary sources themselves.
Through my undergraduate preparation in history, I learned about primary and secondary sources. Primary sources are direct from an event or original source, such as the Declaration of Independence, and secondary sources are anything written about something that isn't the primary account of whatever the source is referencing, such as textbooks discussing the Declaration. Secondary sources often offer interpretations or analysis. When we are dealing with empirical data derived from research we have direct primary source information, but the paper written about it is a secondary source. Academic literature is primarily composed of secondary sources. Hence, taking time to examine the references within the literature to find the most primary or original work on the topics is a vital act to help aid our understanding of the actual topic and not interpretations thereof.
Primary and secondary source data can be used in conjunction with each other. For example, you might be interested in workloads of professors. To collect primary data, during the semester you could survey professors on their work hours, and to collect secondary data, you could request course enrollment reports from the university. Using both would be an example of dual methods, or triangulation, in a study design.
For whichever source or combination of sources you use in your research, the quality of that source should also be evaluated and weighed. Ask yourself: How close to the center of your focus is that source? Is it a participant and first-hand account or secondary perceptions? While there is value found in both primary and secondary sources, as a researcher identifying those primary sources should be the main goal. The closer to the source, the more accurate and meaningful the information provided.
For additional resources and refreshers on getting started or restarting your research journey, visit the Research Process blog here on the Research Hub. For questions and support, join a Research Center and reach out to the Center Chair to get involved.
Primary sources are the raw materials of historical research - they are the documents or artifacts closest to the topic of investigation. Often they are created during the time period which is being studied (correspondence, diaries, newspapers, government documents, art) but they can also be produced later by eyewitnesses or participants (memoirs, oral histories). You may find primary sources in their original format (usually in an archive) or reproduced in a variety of ways: books, microfilm, digital, etc.
Note: The definition of a primary source may vary depending upon the discipline or context.
Artifacts (e.g. coins, plant specimens, fossils, furniture, tools, clothing, all from the time under study)
Audio recordings (e.g. radio programs, oral histories)
Internet communications on email, listservs
Interviews (e.g., oral histories, telephone, e-mail)
Journal articles published in peer-reviewed publications
Newspaper articles written at the time
Original Documents (i.e. birth certificate, will, marriage license, trial transcript)
Proceedings of Meetings, conferences and symposia
Records of organizations, government agencies (e.g. annual report, treaty, constitution, government document)
Survey Research (e.g., market surveys, public opinion polls)
Video recordings (e.g. television programs)
Works of art, architecture, literature, and music (e.g., paintings, sculptures, musical scores, buildings, novels, poems)
Secondary sources offer an analysis or a restatement of primary sources. They often attempt to describe or explain primary sources. Some secondary sources not only analyze primary sources, but also use them to argue a contention or persuade the reader to hold a certain opinion. Secondary sources are not evidence, but rather commentary on and discussion of evidence.
Note: The definition of a secondary source may vary depending upon the discipline or context.
Bibliographies (also considered tertiary)
Dictionaries, Encyclopedias (also considered tertiary)
Journal articles (depending on the disciple can be primary)
Magazine and newspaper articles (this distinction varies by discipline)
Monographs, other than fiction and autobiography
Textbooks (also considered tertiary)
Web site (also considered primary)