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Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper: Tiertiary Sources


A tertiary source consolidates and organizes primary and secondary sources together into one source in order to facilitate quick access to information. Tertiary sources are good starting points for research projects because they often extract the essential meaning or most important aspects of large amounts of information into a convenient format.

Value of Tertiary Sources

The distinctions between primary, secondary, and tertiary sources are frequently ambiguous depending upon the context in which an item is used. Some writers don't make the distinction between tertiary and secondary because both types of materials do not represent original works [primary sources]. However, for the purposes of reviewing the literature, it is important to understand how tiertiary sources can contribute to your overall search for relevant information about the research problem.

Reviewing tertiary source material can be of value in improving your overall research paper because they:

  • Often compile factual information in one place. Searching for the data in mutliple sources takes time [e.g., searching for names of heads of state in an almanac],
  • Lead the reader to additional sources. For example, rather than citing in your literature review a long list of additional sources on a topic, you can simply cite to a comprehensive bibliography compiled by another researcher,
  • Distill large quantities of closely related information or data [e.g., a statistical compendium], and
  • Often contain references and bibliographies that can point you to key primary and secondary sources.

    Examples of tiertiary sources you could review as part of your overall study include:
        * Abstracts
        * Almanacs
        * Bibliographies [also considered secondary]
        * Chronologies
        * Dictionaries and encyclopedias [also considered secondary]
        * Directories
        * Fact books
        * Handbooks
        * Indexes, databases, search engines, and bibliographies used to locate primary and secondary sources
        * Manuals
        * Statistical compendiums
        * Textbooks and course readers [may also be secondary]

    Tertiary sources also include any type of user-contributed online resource such as Wikipedia.

    Comparison for Sources in Selected Social Science Disciplines


    Primary Source

    Secondary Source

    Tertiary Source


    NASDAQ stock quotes

    Trade journal article on NASDAQ stock trends

    ABI/Inform database


    Transcript of television news program

    Newspaper article about person interviewed on the news

    Guide to television news programs


    Bureau of the Census population datasets

    Working paper on demographics in California and small business growth

    Statistical Abstract of California


    Focus group interview of teachers

    Journal article about teaching methods

    Handbook of effective teaching methods

    Environmental Studies

    Fieldwork data measuring glacial melting

    Book on the impact of climate change

    World atlas


    Archival maps of Los Angeles

    Website of digitized maps

    Finding aid of maps held at the Los Angeles Public Library

    International Relations 

    Diplomatic cables between the United States and Japan

    Journal article examining foreign relations between the U.S. and Japan

    Columbia International Affairs Online database


    Testimony before Congress

    Television news report on Congressional hearing

    Congressional committee website

    Political Science 

    Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States

    Biography of a president

    Encyclopedia about American presidents


    Clinical notes

    Journal article about the psychological condition

    Mental Measurements Yearbook

    Social Work 

    Fieldwork observation of prison conditions

    Research report on prison conditions

    Directory of prison facilities


    Survey of adolescent addiction to alcohol

    Journal article about alcoholism among young adults

    Textbook on addictions