Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources
Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources
ENGA14 Finnish Institutions Research Paper (Hopkins)


What are Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources?

The ENGA14 paper requires the explication of a research question, which may be supplemented by an original research component. The research should be based on primary and secondary sources. This document describes the distinctions between primary, secondary and tertiary research sources.

Note that "primary" and "secondary" in this document refer to their standard usage in the classification of academic source material. These definitions are thus not equivalent to "the main sources I plan on using" and "possible other things I might look at" (or similar interpretations).

The 'Nutshell' Relationship of Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Sources

Suppose you were beginning research on a wholly unknown topic. Your first step would be to consult general references such as Wikipedia, the Encyclopedia Britannica, etc. These are examples of "Tertiary" sources — general explanations condensed from 'common knowledge' on the topic intended for a broad public audience. Tertiary sources are usually not credited to a particular author. They are intended only to provide a superficial overview of what the topic includes, its basic terminology, and often references for further reading (which would usually be Secondary sources, produced by established 'experts' on the topic). You might use other tertiary sources, such as dictionaries, to get a fuller sense of definitions and meanings of the field's terminology.

With a general concept of the topic now in mind, you would next consult as many different secondary sources as possible to see what has already been written on the topic, at different times and from different points of view, by other scholars ('experts' on the topic). "Secondary" sources are thus works written on the topic in question by other researchers, whose work has been based on Primary sources after consultation with the Secondary sources on the topic which had existed at the time. The "Review of the Literature" component of full research papers is precisely this wide-ranging review of what all known secondary sources currently say about a given topic, as the foundation for the "new" information you plan to provide in your research.

For your own "new" view of the topic, guided by your review of what existing Secondary sources already say, you would also consult Primary sources. Some of these may be the same as other scholars have already consulted, some may be new that others had not consulted. Your "new" research will usually identify new aspects of the topic which have emerged from your study of primary sources that other scholars had either (a) not known to consult; or (b) consulted but drew 'false' or 'incomplete' conclusions from (at least in your opinion).

In short, academic research is based primarily on the analysis of primary sources, guided by perspectives on the topic which already exist via secondary sources. As tertiary sources only provide general, simplified background on a topic, they would seldom be used in university-level research or writing (unless, for example, what is normally a "tertiary" source is used in the capacity of a "primary" source, as described below with the example of language students comparing changing definitions over a series of dictionaries).

Academic Research is Based on Primary Sources

Academic research is based on primary sources: original 'material' from the field one is studying, including books, articles and letters written by the people or in the field one is studying, interviews with persons involved in the field, speeches and lectures which they delivered, diaries they kept, etc. Scholars consult primary sources in search of new material and/or insights that have not previously been reported by other scholars, or have been reported differently or perhaps even 'mis-reported' by other scholars. (The reporting by other scholars would usually be a "secondary" source for that topic or field.)

For research in the Humanities, primary sources are usually original "records" which were created at the time an historical event occurred (an "historical event" is any phenomenon or procedure which has taken place [or is still taking place] in a particular time and place). Such sources are the "raw material," "firsthand information" or "original thinking" relevant to an event. They include relevant records of the event, for example letters, photographs, diaries, or speeches. Eyewitness accounts, contemporaneous journalistic reports, or even memoirs and oral histories which are created well after the actual event can also be considered primary sources.

We often think of primary sources as being written, but they may also be in other forms, including interviews, recordings, paintings, or even computer software, e-mail correspondence and web pages. Examples of primary sources include:

  • Personal papers
  • Letters (both personal and business)
  • Diaries and journals (both personal and business)
  • Photographs & paintings, sketches, original maps, etc.
  • Advertisements, posters, and banners
  • Memoirs
  • Genealogy records, both personal/family and from public records
  • News footage (newsreels, videotapes or audiotapes, etc.)
  • Newspaper articles written at time of the event
  • Speeches which are contemporaneous with the event
  • Oral histories
  • Minutes of meetings related to the event
  • Vital records (birth and death records, census records, court records, tax records, property records, church registers, or other public and private records).
  • Material artifacts (physical objects or evidence related to the event, including articles of clothing, furnishings, coins, stamps, buildings, tools, weapons,etc.)
  • Creative works, such as novels, essays, poetry, music, art, and audio or video recordings
  • More recently, computer software, e-mail archives, web documents, etc.
  • . . . and many additional types of similar materials.
Primary sources also include the legal status in which an event occurred, or which prevented it from occurring, including relevant municipal, regional, national and international laws, treaties, agreements and other regulatory protocols. The system of law valid in a particular country at a particular time, in other words, is a "primary source" for analyzing what happened in that country during that period.

Data created through original research is also a primary source. Such data includes questionnaires, surveys (e.g. research "instruments") or statistical data relevant to an event which are produced by a researcher.

What Are Secondary Sources?

Secondary sources are accounts of events which were created well after the event occurred. Secondary sources are based on primary sources — they are usually studies which analyze, evaluate, interpret, or criticize primary sources. By assessing, repackaging and distributing information, secondary sources make the information more accessible.

Scholars consult secondary sources to determine what others have already reported about a particular research topic. In one's own research, secondary sources are often compared with one another, for example, to show how many others agreed (or disagreed) on a particular point, such as your own line of thinking from your work with primary sources.

Secondary sources can be articles in newspapers or popular magazines, book or movie reviews, or articles found in scholarly journals that address someone else's original research. Secondary sources are "second-hand information," analogous to human conversation. If I tell you something, I am your primary source. If you tell someone else what I told you, you are a secondary source.

Distinguishing Between Primary and Secondary Sources

The distinction between primary and secondary sources is not always clear; depending on how or why it is being used, a secondary source may also be a primary source. For example Juhani Suomi's biographies of Urho Kekkonen could be considered either secondary or primary sources. The distinction depends on how the material is used. If you are researching Urho Kekkonen, Suomi's books would be secondary sources because they include his opinions about Kekkonen's presidency. On the other hand, if you are evaluating Suomi's historical methodology, his books would be primary sources for the way in which Suomi has interpreted the Kekkonen era.

Thus, one cannot always determine if a record is primary or secondary just by its source. It is more how a source is used, rather than its type, which determines to which category it belongs. For example, articles in newspapers and magazines are usually considered secondary sources. However, if a story about the Winter War in a Finnish newspaper in 1939 was a firsthand, eyewitness account, the story would be a primary source. On the other hand, if the reporter included additional material which was gathered through interviews or other investigations, the article would be a secondary source. An interview in Suosikki with Juice Leskinen would be a primary source, but a review in Suosikki of Juice's latest album would be a secondary source. Further, professional or scholarly journals may include research articles which are primary materials, and also review articles, which are not.

Are 'Tertiary' Sources (including Wikipedia) Acceptable in Academic Papers?

In addition to primary and secondary sources, there are also tertiary sources. These are sources that compile or digest other sources. Some reference materials and textbooks are considered tertiary sources when their chief purpose is to list, summarize or simply repackage ideas or other information. Tertiary sources include dictionaries and encyclopedias, Wikipedia and similar user-contributed online 'encyclopedias' and reference material, as well as various digests (including the Reader's Digest and similar) and schoolbooks.

Generally, tertiary sources are not considered to be acceptable material on which to base academic research. However, this depends on the topic being covered and the reason the source is used. If a language scholar is comparing different definitions of terms in a selection of contemporary dictionaries, or describing different shades of meaning of the translation into Finnish of a term from English on the basis of available dictionaries, the use of these dictionaries as sources would not only be entirely appropriate and essential to the research, but also take on the status of primary sources.

Likewise, guidebooks, manuals, cookbooks and the like may be primary sources for the types of instructions given for certain tasks, as well as for comparisons of these over time (e.g. comparing older to newer cookbook versions as insights into changing food culture, language, etc.

Such categories as statistics and population registers, census data, are all 'tertiary' in the sense that they have been compiled by [usually unknown] others, as opposed to you having researched your own figures for the population of a given entity at a specific time, but Finnish census statistics are certainly legitimate sources for any Finland-based academic research paper.

Likewise, if one were comparing the frequency of change in certain entries in Wikipedia, or how information presented in Wikipedia varied from other contemporary resources, then the entries would all be used as primary sources, as they are the focus and main point of the comparative research itself. However, the main value of Wikipedia (or general encyclopedias, abstracts, etc.) for academic work is to get a quick overview of the background and possible issues related to a certain topic, to know how to focus one's research in primary and secondary sources on one's specific interest with that topic.

General Classifications of Selected Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Sources

Primary

Secondary

Tertiary


    Autobiographies
    correspondence
    descriptions of travel
    diaries
    literary works
    interviews
    personal narratives
    paintings and photographs


    Biographies
    prior books & papers on a topic
    literary criticism & interpretation
    history & historical criticism
    political analyses
    reviews of law and legislation
    essays on morals and ethics
    analyses of social policy
    study and teaching material


    Abstracts
    bibliographies
    chronologies
    classifications
    dictionaries & encyclopedias
    directories
    guidebooks and manuals
    population registers
    statistics


TopResearch & Academic Writing IndexENGA14 Class SchedulePapers ArchiveENGA14 Home

Last Updated 10 January 2013