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Citations: Secondary Sources

Basics of Secondary Sources

Secondary sources often are defined in contrast to primary sources. In a primary source, an author shares his or her original research—whether it be case study findings, experiment results, interview materials, or clinical observations. However, in a secondary source, an author focuses on presenting other scholars’ research, such as in a literature review.

When trying to distinguish between a primary and secondary source, it is important to ask yourself: Who originally made the discoveries or brought the conclusions in this document to light? Did the author conduct the study his or herself? Or is the author recounting the work of other authors? 

For further guidance on determining the difference between primary and secondary sources, see Walden Library’s “Evaluating Resources: Primary & Secondary Sources” page.

Citing a Source Within a Source

In APA, secondary sources often refer to sources found within other sources.

Citing a source within a source is acceptable within academic writing as long as these citations are kept to a minimum. You should use a secondary source only if you are unable to find or retrieve the original source of information. However, if you need to cite a source within a source, follow the guidelines from page 178 in the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, Sixth Edition.

For example, imagine that you found a quotation from Culver that you wish to use in your text; however, you found this information in Jones and were unable to locate Culver’s original source. For this reference, Culver would be the primary source, and Jones would be the secondary source. You will name the primary source in your text, but the reference and in-text citations will credit the secondary source:

According to Culver (as cited in Jones, 2009), learning APA "can be tough, but like any skill, it just takes practice" (p. 23). In addition, the mastery of APA increases an author's chance of scoring well on an assignment (Culver, as cited in Jones, 2009).

Corresponding Reference List Entry

Cite just the secondary source in your reference list.

Jones, J. (2009). Scholarly writing tips. Minneapolis, MN: Publishing House.

Secondary source citations are not just for direct quotations. For instance, when referencing Rogers's adult learning theory, if you did not find the information in Rogers, your citations for the material should be in secondary source format.

Note: When citing primary material, the original publication date is usually unneeded. Following the primary author's name with the year in parentheses, like Culver (2006), indicates that you are directly citing the original source. To avoid confusion, just include the year of the secondary source in your text, like Culver (as cited in Jones, 2009).

Nontraditional Sources: Citing Secondary Sources Video

Knowledge Check: Secondary Sources