Primary, secondary, or tertiary sources?

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Primary sources

A primary source can be defined as a report of original research, discoveries, or ideas.

Examples of primary sources
  • journal articles
  • dissertations
  • conference papers, scientific data, transcripts
  • autobiographies
  • correspondence (emails or letters)
  • diaries, descriptions of travel
  • eyewitnesses
  • literary works
  • interviews, personal narratives, oral histories
  • first-hand newspaper/magazine accounts of events
  • legal cases, treaties
  • statistics, surveys, opinion polls
  • records of organizations and government agencies
  • original works of literature, art, or music
  • cartoons, postcards, posters, maps, paintings, photographs, films

Secondary sources

Secondary sources can be defined as interpretations, commentaries, or evaluations of primary sources.

They synthesize the primary (and sometimes other secondary) sources.

Examples of secondary sources
  • review articles (such as literature reviews)
  • textbooks / handbooks
  • biographies
  • encyclopedias and dictionaries
  • literacy criticism and interpretation
  • history and historical criticism
  • political analyses
  • reviews of law and legislation
  • essays on morals and ethics
  • analyses of social policy
  • study and teaching material
  • commentaries, research articles in all subject disciplines
  • criticism of works of literature, art and music

Tertiary sources

Tertiary sources can be defined as collections of primary and/or secondary sources.

Little to no commentary on the works themselves, but discovery based on various search strategies.

Examples of tertiary sources
  • databases
  • catalogs
  • search engines
  • abstracts
  • indexes
  • bibliographies
  • manuals/guide books
  • chronologies
  • classifications
  • dictionaries
  • encyclopedias
  • directories
  • population registers statistics
  • fact books

How can I determine if my source of information is primary, secondary, or tertiary?

In addition to the above definitions, you can refer to the following indicators to determine if your source of information is primary, secondary, or tertiary:

  • The timing: If a newspaper article is written to report an event that has just happened, then it is a primary source. But if a book chapter analyzes the risks of the event, then it is a secondary source.
  • The rhetorical aim: Referring to the writing style can also help determine the type of source you found. If it is a primary source, the text will only report on an event, whereas a secondary source will have digested and interpreted the event and maybe write in a more analytical or persuasive way.