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Understanding Primary and Secondary Sources


Students discussing Primary and Secondary Sources for research assignment

No matter what editorial style you use for your school essay, APA, Chicago, or MLA, you will need to understand the difference between primary and secondary sources. Most papers include a combination of primary and secondary sources. It’s important to learn how to evaluate sources so that you are using material and data prepared by authoritative sources.

Examples of Primary Sources

Primary research is studying a subject using firsthand investigations such as:

  • Conducting your own survey
  • Conducting your own interviews
  • Your own original research
  • Laboratory experiments

Primary sources are original documents such as:

  • Historical documents – photos, letters, diaries
  • Statistical data – original research
  • Artwork – paintings at museums
  • Books – autobiographies

You can find free access to primary sources in many online databases and libraries.

Conducting Your Own Research

In a short quarter or semester class, you probably won’t be conducting your own large research project; however, it is possible you may be asked to conduct a study using interviews. Interviews can be conducted one on one or you may use an online survey poll such as Survey Monkey. In your research paper, you will describe the research methods you used, under a section titled Methods.

Research Methods

One term you’ll hear frequently in your classes is “methodology’. Methodology is the way you justify the methods you used in your research. For example, you may use qualitative, quantitative or mixed-methods to conduct your research. Your explanation of the selected research methods is the methodology. In your methods section, include these points:

  • How data was collected, for example:
    • Surveys
    • Questionnaires
  • How data was analyzed

Understanding research methods will take some studying using different resources; however, here is a brief overview:

Qualitative Methods

  • Interviews
  • Content analysis

Quantitative Methods

  • Numerical data
  • Questionnaires/Surveys

Mixed Methods

As the name suggests, mixed methods combines both qualitative and quantitative methods.

Secondary Research and Sources

Secondary research is an examination of other researchers’ research studies. Secondary sources include:

  • Reference works
  • Articles about historical events
  • Essays about literature
  • Literature reviews about existing research

Interviews can be primary or secondary sources, depending on the format. If you have conducted an interview personally or if the interview is in its raw or original format, it is a primary source. However, if you are reading about an interview in a newspaper written by someone else, it is a secondary source. Either way, interviews can be good sources for your paper.

As you enter college writing classes, knowing how to select, evaluate sources and research is going to be a critical skill. Usually your instructor will provide guidance on the types of research and how many primary and secondary sources are required for your paper.

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About the author

Adrienne Mathewson

Adrienne Mathewson, Editor-in-Chief of Bibliography.com, is an Information Professional with a Master’s in Library, Information & Science from San José State University with an emphasis on information literacy and scholarly publishing. She is a certified librarian through the State of New Mexico.

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