The Research Process
One way to classify sources is by the proximity of information to the time period, event or research study out of which they arise. These we call primary, secondary and tertiary sources.
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 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 scholarly (if written by scholars and published in scholarly journals).
Secondary sources summarize, interpret, critique, comment on or analyze primary sources. In a secondary source, an author may be summarizing, interpreting or analyzing data or information from someone else’s research or offering an interpretation or opinion on current events. But 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 scholarly (if written by scholars and published in scholarly journals).
Tertiary sources are syntheses of primary and secondary sources. They include encyclopedias, fact books, dictionaries, guides, and handbooks.
Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Sources and your Research Strategy
- 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?
- 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?
- What kinds of tertiary sources will you try to access? Why?