Skip to main content

Evaluating Resources: Primary & Secondary Sources

Primary v. secondary sources

A question to ask yourself when trying to identify primary or secondary sources is:

Did the person writing the thing do the thing?

While this may sound odd, the best indicator that something is a primary source is if the author of the piece actually DID the work that led to the creation of the resource.

These are some other things to consider with primary and secondary sources.

  • Primary and secondary sources can be different publication types. Articles can be primary or secondary, just as books can be.
  • Primary and secondary sources are not related to peer review in any way. Peer-reviewed articles can be either primary or secondary sources.
  • There is no perfect database limiter for primary or secondary, either. There are no check boxes like there are with with peer review.
  • Primary and secondary sources don't self identify as such. Nowhere in a primary source will it say, "this is a primary source." You need to evaluate the resource to figure it out.

Primary sources

In primary source documents, the person writing the piece actually did the research, or witnessed the event, or created something entirely new. These are some examples of primary sources:

  • original research studies
    • An author completes original research and then writes about it.
  • first-hand accounts of events
    • An author writes about his or her experience of an event.
  • books with original theories or ideas or philosophies
    • An author creates an original theory or philosophy, and then writes about it.
  • creative works like novels
    • An author writes an original novel.

Secondary sources

Secondary sources evaluate or analyze what others have done or witnessed or created. The authors didn't go out and do it, they just analyzed it or wrote about it. These are some examples of secondary sources:

  • systematic reviews or meta analysis
    • Authors gather together a lot of primary research studies and then analyze them.
       
  • literature reviews
    • An author chooses a topic, finds a lot of articles on that topic, and writes about the topic based on other authors' research.
       
  • literary criticism
    • An author analyzes an original creative work.

Identifying primary & secondary sources

When looking at a resource to determine whether it is primary or secondary, words that describe the action of the author can be helpful. For example,  words like these can indicate actual research carried out:

  • examined
  • predicted
  • experimented
  • tested
  • investigated
  • explored

In secondary resources, since the focus is on analyzing or discussion of a primary source, you would look for words that describe the action of the author indicating that this is an analysis or discussion, such as:

  • analysis
  • synthesis
  • overview
  • appraisal
  • reported on

You will need to examine the abstract and/or the article to determine if the resource is primary or secondary. While the words above can help indicate the type of resource, this is not a cut and dried process where if you see a particular word, that means the resource is always primary.

Locating a findings section in an article doesn't mean the source is either primary or secondary. Check to see whether the authors did the research themselves, or whether they analyzed research done by others.

Primary source example

For example, in the article, School counselors' strategies for social justice change: A grounded theory of what works in the real world, these are some of the key elements from the abstract that indicate that it is a primary, research article:

  • qualitative study
  • grounded theory methodology
  • explore the strategies that 16 school counselors
  • Findings included seven overarching themes

The primary source authors actually talked to 16 school counselors, using grounded methodology, to come up with their findings based on the research that the authors actually did. Here, the authors did the research themselves and then reported on it.

 

Singh, A. A., Urbano, A., Haston, M., & McMahon, E. (2010). School counselors' strategies for social justice change: A grounded theory of what works in the real world. Professional School Counseling, 13(3), 135-145. doi:10.5330/PSC.n.2010-13.135

Secondary source example

This is an example of an article that is a secondary source, with some of the key elements highlighted:

In the article abstract, Advocacy for health equity: A synthesis review, these are some of the key elements that indicate it is a secondary source article:

  • aim of this review is to synthesize the evidence in the academic and gray literature
  • systematic review of the academic literature and a fixed-length systematic search of the gray literature
  • anaylzed our findings
  • synthesized our findings
  • made a critical appraisal of the literature
  • brings together for the first time evidence from the academic and the gray literature and provides a building block for efforts to advocate for health equity

What makes the secondary source secondary is that the authors used other authors' research, analyzing and synthesizing the information to come up with their conclusions, or findings.

 

Farrer, L., Marinetti, C., Cavaco, Y. K., & Costongs, C. (2015). Advocacy for health equity: A synthesis review. Milbank Quarterly, 93(2), 392-437. doi:10.1111/1468-0009.12112