Skip to Main Content

First Year Seminar (FYS) Subject Guide

Primary vs. Secondary Sources

In the humanities and some social sciences, a primary source is generally considered to be a document or object created in a particular time, providing contemporary accounts of events. Primary sources are original documents, giving first-hand perspectives of someone who experienced or witnessed the event being discussed.
Examples of primary sources in the humanites and select social sciences include: letters, diaries, autobiographies, newspaper or magazine articles, photographs, advertisements and cartoons, speeches, paintings, interviews, research data and statistics, public opinion polls, etc.

In the sciences, as well as some social sciences, primary sources are original articles or other texts describing a researcher's new experimental data, observations, results, and/or theories. These primary articles usually contain an introduction, methods, and results section. As a note, some review articles (which are not primary sources) may also contain these sections, so the reader should always review the article's content to determine what kind of article it is. An article can appear in a scholarly peer-reviewed journal and not be a primary source (i.e. editorials, review articles, book reviews).

A secondary source is an interpretation or analysis of the document, object, or event, at a later date. Secondary sources comment on or review one or more primary sources. Secondary sources are at least one step removed from the primary source.

Examples of secondary sources in the humanities and some social sciences include: scholarly or popular books, journal articles analyzing primary sources, documentary movies, etc. Examples of secondary sources in the sciences and some social sciences include newspaper articles summarizing an experiment and review articles summarizing many primary articles on the same subject.

Defining Key Terms

You may be wondering what we mean when we refer to scholarly versus popular.

  • Scholarly: In-depth, research-based articles, books, and book chapters, written by scholars and experts and intended for other researchers, experts, and students.
  • Popular: Articles, books, and book chapters written by journalists or professional writers for a general audience in common language (e.g., newspapers and magazines).
  • Trade: Articles written by professionals of a field for other professionals within that field.  They usually contain news stories written to include the perspective of the profession, best practices, and professional narratives.  

Learn more: What is Scholarly?

While we're at it, how about a few more key terms...

  • Empirical/Primary: Based on experiment or observation.
  • Literature review/Secondary:  Overview of empirical research completed on a subject.
  • Peer-Reviewed: A process through which some scholarly articles and book chapters are critically evaluated by experts with in-depth knowledge of the research area before publication in order to ensure the information is valid, credible, well-written, and of high quality.