Whether conducting research in the social sciences, humanities (especially history), arts, or natural sciences, the ability to distinguish between primary and secondary source material is essential. Basically, this distinction illustrates the degree to which the author of a piece is removed from the actual event being described, informing the reader as to whether the author is reporting impressions first hand (or is first to record these immediately following an event), or conveying the experiences and opinions of others—that is, second hand.
2. Primary sources
These are contemporary accounts of an event, written by someone who experienced or witnessed the event in question. These original documents (i.e., they are not about another document or account) are often diaries, letters, memoirs, journals, speeches, manuscripts, interviews and other such unpublished works. They may also include published pieces such as newspaper or magazine articles (as long as they are written soon after the fact and not as historical accounts), photographs, audio or video recordings, research reports in the natural or social sciences, or original literary or theatrical works.
3. Secondary sources
The function of these is to interpret primary sources, and so can be described as at least one step removed from the event or phenomenon under review. Secondary source materials, then, interpret, assign value to, conjecture upon, and draw conclusions about the events reported in primary sources. These are usually in the form of published works such as journal articles or books, but may include radio or television documentaries, or conference proceedings.
4. Defining questions
When evaluating primary or secondary sources, the following questions might be asked to help ascertain the nature and value of material being considered:
- How does the author know these details (names, dates, times)? Was the author present at the event or soon on the scene?
- Where does this information come from—personal experience, eyewitness accounts, or reports written by others?
- Are the author's conclusions based on a single piece of evidence, or have many sources been taken into account (e.g., diary entries, along with third-party eyewitness accounts, impressions of contemporaries, newspaper accounts)?
Ultimately, all source materials of whatever type must be assessed critically and even the most scrupulous and thorough work is viewed through the eyes of the writer/interpreter. This must be taken into account when one is attempting to arrive at the 'truth' of an event.
When it comes to research and inquiry, there are two types of sources: primary sources and secondary sources. Primary sources are first-hand accounts of a topic while secondary sources are any account of something that is not a primary source. Published research, newspaper articles, and other media are typical secondary sources. Secondary sources can, however, cite both primary sources and secondary sources.
Not all evidence is of equal value and weight. Data from a primary source is the ideal type of data to collect; the closer we can get to an original account of the target information or event the more accurate the information will be. Primary source data is particularly important when doing research or trying to gain a deep understanding of a situation as it contains the original or raw evidence. In comparison, secondary sources typically include information where people begin developing initial understandings of a topic and literature reviews. While both primary and secondary source data are used in research, new knowledge emerges from analysis of primary source data.
Let’s look at a fun example: the recent Super Bowl 50 game. As a researcher, I might be interested in learning what it was like to watch the game live. If I were to interview all the fans who were at the game or watched the game live on TV, we would have a primary source of people. However, if what we wanted to learn more about is the experience of playing in the game, clearly the players on the Broncos and Panthers would be our best primary source. If I wanted more data, I might also read interviews of players or blogs of people who attended the game for information about what the game was like. An auto-biography by a player in the super bowl would be a primary source while a biography on a player would be a secondary source. Within this same example, articles that have come out on the Super Bowl, whether they are based on primary or secondary sources, are likely secondary sources themselves.
Through my undergraduate preparation in history, I learned about primary and secondary sources. Primary sources are direct from an event or original source, such as the Declaration of Independence, and secondary sources are anything written about something that isn't the primary account of whatever the source is referencing, such as textbooks discussing the Declaration. Secondary sources often offer interpretations or analysis. When we are dealing with empirical data derived from research we have direct primary source information, but the paper written about it is a secondary source. Academic literature is primarily composed of secondary sources. Hence, taking time to examine the references within the literature to find the most primary or original work on the topics is a vital act to help aid our understanding of the actual topic and not interpretations thereof.
Primary and secondary source data can be used in conjunction with each other. For example, you might be interested in workloads of professors. To collect primary data, during the semester you could survey professors on their work hours, and to collect secondary data, you could request course enrollment reports from the university. Using both would be an example of dual methods, or triangulation, in a study design.
For whichever source or combination of sources you use in your research, the quality of that source should also be evaluated and weighed. Ask yourself: How close to the center of your focus is that source? Is it a participant and first-hand account or secondary perceptions? While there is value found in both primary and secondary sources, as a researcher identifying those primary sources should be the main goal. The closer to the source, the more accurate and meaningful the information provided.
For additional resources and refreshers on getting started or restarting your research journey, visit the Research Process blog here on the Research Hub. For questions and support, join a Research Center and reach out to the Center Chair to get involved.