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FYUR 10201.02: How Do You Win a Food Fight? - Kercher

How to Tell What is a Primary Source

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.

In the health sciences, primary sources tend to be:

  • Journal articles: where original scientific research is reported.
  • Theses/dissertations: detailed accounts of research conducted for the awarding of higher academic degrees.  In many cases, it will also be later reported in a condensed form as a journal article.
  • Reports: individual publications reporting research. They may report internal research within an organization, or research done by an individual or organization under contract to a client. An example could be a public health report about heart disease published by the Ohio Department of Health.
  • Patents: provide research information on new products or processes. Once published, patent information is freely available, but rarely republished in journal articles.
  • Conferences: Papers presented at conferences may or may not be subject to editorial scrutiny. Conference papers may not published at all, published only in abstract form, published in advance of the conference as a preprint, published in book form, or as a special issue of a journal.

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.

Examples of types of sources and how to locate them.

Primary vs. Secondary vs. Tertiary

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