Primary Sources are immediate, first-hand accounts of a topic, from people who had a direct connection with it. Primary sources can include:
Secondary Sources are one step removed from primary sources, though they often quote or otherwise use primary sources. They can cover the same topic, but add a layer of interpretation and analysis. Secondary sources can include:
When is a Primary Source a Secondary Source?
Whether something is a primary or secondary source often depends upon the topic and its use.
A biology textbook would be considered a secondary source if in the field of biology, since it describes and interprets the science but makes no original contribution to it.
On the other hand, if the topic is science education and the history of textbooks, textbooks could be used a primary sources to look at how they have changed over time.
Examples of Primary and Secondary Sources
*Content borrowed from The University of Massachusetts Boston Healy Library's Primary Sources: A Research Guide.
Background sources are written for a general audience and are intended to give an overview of a topic, fill gaps in the reader’s knowledge, and provide context for deeper understanding. Examples include Wikipedia, introductory textbooks, and reference works such as encyclopedias, dictionaries, and handbooks. They can be a useful place to start your research and can assist in selecting a topic for a research project, locating basic information and key facts, defining important words and concepts, and getting suggestions for additional sources to consult.
Typical characteristics of background sources:
Both scholarly and peer-reviewed articles are written by experts in academic or professional fields. Scholarly articles are published in journals for specific academic disciplines. Many scholarly journals are also peer-reviewed.
Peer-reviewed articles are submitted to reviewers who are experts in the field. Because the reviewers specialize in the same scholarly area as the author, they are considered the author’s peers (hence “peer review”).
Both scholarly and peer-reviewed articles are excellent places to find what has been studied or researched on a topic, as well as find references to additional relevant sources of information.