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PRIMARY VS. SECONDARY VS. TERTIARY

 

You have just been assigned a research project and part of the assignment is to use primary and secondary sources. 

You are a bit confused as to what is meant by those terms.  To add to the confusion, the definitions vary slightly from discipline to discipline. 

To a large extent it depends upon when the source was published (or in some cases, written, since it was never formally published) and the purpose for which the researcher is using the publication. 

Nonetheless, here are basic definitions:

Primary Source: An authoritative document relating to a subject, which is used in the preparation of a later work, such as an original record or a contemporary document.  In the humanities, a primary source is the document being analyzed; in the sciences it is a journal article reporting the results of original research.  Primary sources are also called original sources or source material.

Secondary Source: A publication that digests, analyzes, evaluates, and/or interprets the information in primary sources.

Tertiary Source:  A source that compiles, analyzes, and/or digests secondary sources.

  Primary Secondary Tertiary

Timing of Publication

Cycle

Tends to come first in the publication cycle. Tends to come second in the publication cycle. Tends to come last in the publication cycle.
Formats – depends in part on the type of analysis being done and the subject discipline

Newspapers, weekly and monthly magazines, letters, diaries.  For scientists, scholarly journal articles.

Scholarly journal articles and books that build upon the primary sources. Reference books (encyclopedias, for example) or text books.
Example: Historian (studying the Vietnam War)

Newspaper articles, weekly news magazines, monthly magazines, recordings of TV news broadcasts, diaries, letters, and diplomatic records.

Scholarly journal articles and books analyzing the war, which probable footnote the primary sources. Encyclopedias and other reference books and text books that include information about the Vietnam War.
Example: Literary Critic (studying the literature of the Vietnam War) Novels, poems, plays, diaries, correspondence.

Scholarly journal articles and books analyzing the literature.  Biographies of the authors who wrote the primary sources.

Encyclopedias and other reference books and text books that include information about the literature or the authors.
Example: Psychologist (studying the effects of PTSD) Article in a scholarly journal that reports original research and its methodology, as well as notes taken by a clinical psychologist. Scholarly journal articles or books that synthesize the results of original research. Encyclopedias and other reference books and text books that include information about PTSD.
Example: Scientist (studying Agent Orange exposure) Article in a scholarly journal that reports original research. Scholarly journal articles or books that synthesize the results of original research.

Encyclopedias and other reference books and text books that include information about the literature or the authors.

Based on documents from:

William Madison Randall Library, University of North Carolina Wilmington

St. Lawrence University Libraries

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