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Ann Monday Library Media Center: Research Tips


Research Tips

Distinguishing Between Primary & Secondary Sources


Distinguishing Between Primary & Secondary Sources



1. Introduction

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document or account) are often diaries, letters, memoirs, journals, speeches, manuscripts, interviews and other such unpublished works.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.

UC Santa Cruz University Library

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Academic Resource Types II

Finding Scholarly Articles

To find scholarly (or 'peer reviewed') articles, you should to use a database


What's a scholarly article?

  • Scholarly or peer reviewed articles are written by experts and reviewed by several other experts in the field before the article is published in the journal in order to ensure the article's quality. 
  • In general scholarly articles are at least 5 pages long and include a bibliography and in-text citations.
  • A database will provide the searcher greater access to the latest research of an academic standard than could ever be found using Google.

Periodicals, Journals, Serials & Magazines

What is the difference?

Periodicals are anything published periodically, and is generally interchangeable with Serials. Usually refers to print medium, although Serials can refer to a variety of mediums (such as tv programs) as well as print. Examples:

journals  |  magazines  |   conference proceedings  |   annual reports  |   tv programs  |   trade publications  |   newspapers

Magazines - commercial publications intended for a general, popular audience for the purpose of informing and entertaining.
Journals - specialized, scholarly publications written by authorities in the field. They usually include bibliographies.

What is peer review?

Peer review is part of the editorial process an article goes through before it is published in a peer-reviewed journal. When you need a peer-reviewed article for a paper, what you are really looking for is an article published in a peer-reviewed journal. 

Once an article is submitted to a peer-reviewed journal, the journal editors send that article to "peers" or scholars in the field to evaluate the article. These scholars review the methodology and conclusions of the article, looking for bias and other flaws. They may reject the article, in which case the author may have the opportunity to re-write it, or they can accept the article. In this case, the article then goes on to final editing and publication. 

Please be aware, just because a journal is peer reviewed does not mean everything in that journal is peer reviewed. Each issue of a journal may have letters to the editor, opinion pieces, or book reviews; these materials are not peer reviewed.