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Research: Getting Started


Primary vs Secondary Sources

Primary Sources 

A primary source is an original object or document -- the raw material or first-hand information. Primary sources offer an inside view of a particular event. They are factual, not interpretive, and include sources such as historical and legal documents, eyewitness accounts, results of experiments, statistical data, pieces of creative writing, and art objects. In the natural and social sciences, primary sources are often empirical studies -- research where an experiment was done or a direct observation was made. The results of empirical studies are typically found in scholarly articles or papers delivered at conferences, so those articles and papers that present the original results are considered primary sources.

Original, first-hand account of an event or time period -- Autobiographies, diaries, e-mail, interviews, letters, minutes, news film footage, official records, photographs, raw research data, speeches

Original, creative writing or works of art -- Art, drama, films, music, novels, poetry

Report of scientific discoveries or results of experiments -- Published results of research studies, Published results of scientific experiments, Published results of clinical trials


Secondary Sources

A secondary source is something written about a primary source. Secondary sources include comments on, interpretations of, or discussions about the original material. You can think of secondary sources as second-hand information. If I tell you something, I am the primary source. If you tell someone else what I told you, you are the secondary source. Secondary source materials can be articles in newspapers or popular magazines, book or movie reviews, or articles found in scholarly journals that discuss or evaluate someone else's original research.

Second-hand account of a historical event - Biographies, histories, newspaper articles that interpret

Interprets creative work - Literary criticism; book, art, and theater reviews

Analyzes and interprets research results or scientific discoveries - Publications about the significance of research or experiments, analysis of a clinical trial, review of the results of several experiments or trials


Specific Examples

  Primary Source Secondary Source
Literature The Great Gatsby (Novel) Journal article about symbolism in The Great Gatsby
History The Declaration of Independence Book about the events surrounding the creation of the Declaration of Independence
Art A painting by Jacob Lawrence Magazine article about Harlem Renaissance art

Sciences  (Biology, Chemistry, etc.)

A research study that contains a
materials, methods, and results
section describing an experiment
or observation performed by the

An editorial or review article that
summarizes what is known about a
particular topic

Politics and Government U.S. Census Statistics Book about suburban population changes in U.S.


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