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Primary Sources

Some definitions:

  • Original materials on which other research is based.

  • Usually the first formal appearance of results in the print or electronic literature.

  • Present information in its original form, neither interpreted nor condensed nor evaluated by other writers.

  • Are from the time period (for example, something written close to when what it is recording happened is likely to be a primary source.)

  • Present original thinking, report on discoveries, or share new information.

Some examples:

  • Scientific journal articles reporting experimental research results

  • Proceedings of Meetings, Conferences and Symposia.

  • Technical reports

  • Dissertations or theses (may also be secondary)

  • Internet communications on email, listservs, and newsgroups

Secondary Sources

In science, secondary sources are those which simplify the process of finding and evaluating the primary literature. They tend to be works which repackage, reorganize, reinterpret, summarise, index or otherwise "add value" to the new information reported in the primary literature.

Some Definitions:

  • Describe, interpret, analyze and evaluate the primary sources.

  • Comment on and discuss the evidence provided by primary sources.

  • Are works which are one or more steps removed from the event or information they refer to, being written after the fact with the benefit of hindsight.

Some examples:

  • Dictionaries and encyclopedias

  • Handbooks and data compilations

  • Journal articles, particularly in disciplines other than science (may also be primary)

  • Monographs (other than fiction and autobiography)

  • Newspaper and popular magazine articles (may also be primary)

  • Review articles and literature reviews

  • Textbooks

Primary, Secondary & Tertiary Sources 
Written by Ward Saylor & Helen Hooper for Information and Research Support, within the Information Services program of the Academic Support Division at James Cook University, July, 2000.

Primary vs Secondary Research

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