Chapter 10: Sources and Research

10.1 Types of Sources: Primary, Secondary, Tertiary

This chapter will help you learn about the difference between those types of sources, here is a quick and useful reference:

“Scholarly and Popular Sources” by Carnegie Vincent Library is licensed under CC BY

The determination of a text as “popular” or “scholarly/academic” is one way to classify it and to understand what type of information you are engaging with.  Another way to classify sources is by considering whether they are primary, secondary or tertiary. Popular sources can be primary, secondary, or tertiary. Scholarly sources, also, can be primary, secondary, or tertiary.

What is a Primary Source?

Primary sources are texts that arise directly from a particular event or time period. They may be letters, speeches, works of art, works of literature, diaries, direct personal observations, newspaper articles that offer direct observations of current events, survey responses, tweets, other social media posts, original scholarly research (meaning research that the author or authors conduct themselves) or any other content that comes out of direct involvement with an event or a research study.


Primary research is information that has not yet been critiqued, interpreted or analyzed by a second (or third, etc) party.


Primary sources can be popular (if published in newspapers, magazines or websites for the general public) or academic (if written by scholars and published in scholarly journals).


Examples of primary sources:

  • journals, diaries
  • blog posts
  • a speech
  • data from surveys or polls
  • scholarly journal articles in which the author(s) discuss the methods and results from their own original research/experiments
  • photos, videos, sound recordings
  • interviews or transcripts
  • poems, paintings, sculptures, songs or other works of art
  • government documents (such as reports of legislative sessions, laws or court decisions, financial or economic reports, and more)
  • Newspaper and Magazine articles that report directly on current events (although these can also be considered Secondary)
  • Investigative journalism (sometimes considered Secondary as well)

What is a Secondary Source?

Secondary sources summarize, interpret, critique, analyze, or offer commentary on primary sources.

In a secondary source, an author’s subject is not necessarily something that he or she directly experienced. The author of a secondary source may be summarizing, interpreting or analyzing data or information from someone else’s research or offering an interpretation or opinion on current events. Thus, the secondary source is one step away from that original, primary topic/subject/research study.

Secondary sources can be popular (if published in newspapers, magazines or websites for the general public) or academic (if written by scholars and published in scholarly journals).


Examples of secondary sources:

  • book, movie or art reviews
  • summaries of the findings from other people’s research
  • interpretations or analyses of primary source materials or other people’s research
  • histories or biographies
  • political commentary
  • Newspaper and Magazine articles that mainly synthesize others’ research or primary materials (remember, newspaper and magazine articles can also be considered primary, depending on the content)

What is a Tertiary Source?

Tertiary sources are syntheses of primary and secondary sources. The person/people who compose a tertiary text are summarizing, compiling, and/or paraphrasing others’ work. These sources sometimes do not even list an author. Often you would want to use a tertiary source to find both Primary and Secondary sources. Keep in mind that, too, that it may sometimes be difficult to categorize something as strictly tertiary, and that it may depend on how you decide to use the item in your research and writing. Your instructors will often not accept the sole use of tertiary sources for your papers. Instead, you should strive to only use tertiary sources to find more academic sources, as they often have titles of other works and links (f they are web-based) to more academic primary and secondary sources that you can use instead.

Tertiary sources can be popular or academic depending on the content and publisher.

Examples of tertiary sources include:

  • encyclopedias
  • fact books
  • dictionaries
  • guides
  • handbooks
  • Wikipedia

“Primary, Secondary, & Tertiary Sources” by sccclibrary

Now that you know what kinds of sources exist, it is important to remember that various disciplines find certain types of evidence to be more acceptable and appropriate than others. For instance, while the Humanities may consider anything from passages of text to art appropriate evidence, certain sciences may prefer data and statistics. What is most important to remember, no matter the discipline for which you are writing and pulling evidence, is that the evidence is never enough by itself. You must always be sure to explain why, and how, that evidence supports your claims or ideas. For more information on types of evidence considered appropriate for each academic discipline, you may click here for section 8.3

Thinking about Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Sources and your Research Strategy

  1. What kinds of primary sources would be useful for your research project? Why? Where will you find them? Are you more interested in popular primary sources or scholarly primary sources — and why?
  2. What kinds of secondary sources could be useful for your project – and why? Are you more interested in popular secondary sources or scholarly secondary sources – and why?
  3. What kinds of tertiary sources might you try to access? In what ways would this tertiary source help you in your research?



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