The Difference Between Primary and Secondary Sources

Updated: Nov 15, 2016

In short, commentaries and interpretations about people, events, and works of art, statistics, or scientific data are Secondary Sources

When it comes to finding sources for a written assignment, it is crucial the student in higher education has the ability to differentiate between various sources and can evaluate the credibility of these sources, while understanding how sources can enhance their overall understanding of a subject or topic. In most cases, a student’s research will likely lead them to both Primary and Secondary Sources. 

PRIMARY SOURCES

Primary Sources include historical documents, literary works (poems, novels, short stories, plays, etc.), eyewitness accounts, diaries, field reports, letters and other examples of correspondence between people, like emails, and lab studies. Others examples of Primary Sources are the following: any original research is done through interviews, experiments, and observations, as well as surveys. Primary Sources are useful because they offer subjects for firsthand study.  

SECONDARY SOURCES

Secondary Sources include scholarly books and articles, reviews, biographies, textbooks – as well as other works that interpret and/or discuss Primary Sources. A Secondary Source helps a student understand and evaluate primary source material. 

Examples of Primary vs. Secondary Sources

 • A novel or poem is a Primary Source; however, the scholarly articles interpreting them are Secondary Sources. 
 • A published report of scientific findings is a Primary Source; a critique or evaluation of that report is a Secondary Source. 
 • The Declaration of Independence is a primary historical document – and, therefore, a Primary Source. 
 • A historian’s description of the events and circumstances surrounding the Declaration of Independence’s writing is a Secondary Source. 


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The Exception

Determining if a work is considered a primary or secondary source often depends on the topic and the purpose of the writer: if a person is analyzing a poem – a Primary Source – a critic’s article interpreting the poem is a Secondary Source. But if the student or scholar is investigating that critic’s article (the interpretation of the poem), that article could be considered a Primary Source for the student’s own study and interpretation. 

Why Is This Important to Know? 

Since most student research papers will include a combination of Primary and Secondary Sources, it is very important to understand the implications of each. A familiarity with the Primary Sources of a topic will allow the student to assess the accuracy and value of a Secondary Source. 

For example, if a student reads Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter (a Primary Source) for a better understanding of Puritan history and beliefs, that student would be better inclined to discern a fallible, valueless Secondary Source; if that student has not read the novel, though, they may have been convinced that same Secondary Source was indeed a credible one – therefore, earning them a lower grade on the assignment for using a Secondary Source that does not treat the subject matter accurately and respectfully; it would exemplify the use of an insignificant Secondary Source. In short, commentaries and interpretations about people, events, and works of art, statistics, or scientific data are Secondary Sources – ones that should be evaluated on the basis of how well they describe and interpret a Primary Source. 

Sources: 

  1. Richard, B., Goggin, M. D., & Weinberg, F. (2010). The Norton Field Guide to Writing with Readings and Handbook (2nd ed.). New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.
  2. Meyer , M. (1994). The Little, Brown Guide to Writing Research Papers. New York, NY: Harpercollins College Div.

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