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Primary Sources vs Secondary Sources: Home

A discussion of the difference between primary and secondary sources as used in history and science.

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Primary Sources

Primary sources are original materials on which further research is based- the firsthand accounts for history books or the experimental data and initial reports for scientific reviews.

In history, a primary source (or original source) is any material created in the time of the event being discussed or created by someone who directly participated in the event- they involve firsthand accounts. These can include letters, speeches, diary or journal entries, photographs, video recording, interviews, and physical artifacts.

A special note about literature- when working with a published novel, short story, or other work, the citations from the work itself are considered primary sources.

In the sciences, a primary source is a material which discusses the theory, research, and methodology of an experiment or project conducted by the writer. Again, the account is firsthand, not interpreted by a later writer. Examples include lab reports, conference papers, and some scholarly articles.

It is important to note that a source can change from primary to secondary based on how it is used. Citing an interview directly in a paper counts as a primary source; if a paper or book which cites the same interview is cited instead, the interview becomes a secondary source- unless the interview itself is also cited separately in the paper.

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources are works which cite, analyze, and discuss one or more primary sources. Almost any work that cites another work is a secondary source. These can include books, scholarly articles, and reviews.

In the case of the sciences, a citation is not automatically an indicator of a secondary source. If the source still discusses original research and methodology, it can still be used as a primary source. Note, however, that it may prove beneficial to examine the original work.

Examples

Primary Secondary
Correspondence Criticism/Interpretation
Diaries/Journals Dictionaries/Encyclopedias
Interviews Handbooks/Textbooks
Notes Law and Legislation
Surveys Reviews