Understanding the Difference Between a Primary and a Secondary Source

Every research paper needs to give credit by citing where the information was found. But did the information come from a primary or secondary source? Mainly physical books and journals are used to provide the material found in research papers.

Read on to learn which sources are best to give your research paper credibility.

The Basic Breakdown of Primary and Secondary Sources

By the time one reaches post-doc, they are likely well-versed in writing academic research papers. Despite the lengthy experience writing papers, the difference between primary and secondary sources can still be confusing. Especially when you have to factor in how to cite sources found on the vast internet.

Primary sources are those with a first-hand account of a historical event or the time period being researched. If writing a research paper about something that happened in the past, your primary source is someone who witnessed the event.

If you’re performing research on a topic in the present day, your first-person interviews or experiments can be considered primary sources.  

Secondary sources come from people or agencies who weren’t directly involved in the event. These sources offer background information about what happened but not first-hand testimony. Secondary sources often consist of someone else’s research, review, or commentary on the topic.

Old-School Primary and Secondary Decisions

One could reason that research papers that rely solely on first-hand experience have more factual weight than those with secondary sources. But research papers require both primary and secondary sources.

Primary sources provide credible evidence, while secondary sources provide background information not found in the first-hand telling of events. What constitutes primary and secondary sources?

Examples of primary and secondary sources:

Primary source

●      Letters

●      Autobiographies

●      Diary entries

●      Interviews

●      Historical documents

Secondary source

●      Academic journal articles

●      Biographies

●      Reviews

●      Textbooks

●      Research essays

Moving on to Citing Sources in the 21st Century

Before the boom of the internet, finding sources for your research paper was sometimes like finding a needle in a haystack. Scholars would head to their local academic or public library, where the research process would begin with the card catalog.

Long before libraries had a digital index of every book on the premises, the information would be in the large filing cabinets known as card catalogs. The small index cards listed relevant information such as the title of the book, the author, the subject, and a brief summary. Then the researcher had to hunt down the physical book from the stacks using the Dewey Decimal system.

Once the desired book was located, the researcher would read through or skim the entire book for the relevant material, making notes (on paper!) that included the page number and other citation information.

And all that work isn’t even including journals, which were kept behind the circulation desk. The librarian working behind the desk would often point researchers toward the relevant journal.

Now with the internet, all of that information is available with a search query term and the click of a mouse.

But somehow, citing sources can actually be more difficult in the 21st century than ever before. Why?

The internet has an endless amount of information, but that information is not always attributed to the correct, or any, source.

To make things more difficult, one research paper might be referenced time and again, making the secondary source a convoluted maze to track down the original citation.

Throw in social media and YouTube videos, which are difficult to discern fact from fiction.

Regardless if you use old-school research methods or an internet search, finding your primary and secondary sources isn’t an easy task. However, both types of sources are necessary for ensuring both the reliability (primary sources) and the background (secondary sources) of the research.

Good luck hunting!


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