Primary and Secondary Sources

In any paper or article that attempts to explain a concept, prove a point or relay a story, the most important thing a writer can do to add credibility is to cite their sources. Citing a source lends legitimacy to writing by connecting it to other pieces of work, proving that the facts and information were not fabricated and that there is a place to check and verify the author’s claims. It is essential, however, to remain vigilant when using sources, as there is one than one kind of source, and they can serve different purposes. The two types of sources are primary and secondary.

What’s a primary source?

We define a primary source as items or documents directly from the period under study. Sources can include objects such as jewelry, clothes, and tools among other things. A primary source can also refer to a firsthand account of an event, such as a journal entry, a newspaper or a letter. The closer to the original event, the better the source. However, all this mainly applies to historical research. In a medical paper or article, a primary source could be a scientific report, raw data or an interview with a professional in the field. Any source derived from direct experience with a subject is a primary source. A primary source is important because, in theory at least, it represents unbiased, uninterpreted information. If trying to prove an event occurred a certain way independently, or that given pattern of behavior exists, an author can point to the primary source as hard evidence.

What’s a secondary source?

A secondary source is a source is generally taken to be any source that interprets a primary source or another secondary source to contextualize or analyze it. That is to say, the author of a secondary source was not directly involved in the gathering of information for their work. Examples of secondary sources may include books, audio or visually-based documentaries, or news analysis articles. In a scientific context, these might consist of criticism and interpretation, moral and ethical responses, or scientific news articles. The importance of the secondary source is that, unlike a primary source, it allows for analysis and contextualization of the source with other sources and current knowledge. As knowledge of a subject changes, our understanding of primary sources and previous works covering those primary sources change. A disproved theory still has the original report on file, but a secondary source can make it easy to explain how the theory was incorrect and now a more accurate description exists.

Trust, but verify

We arrive at the final point about any source: check and verify. It is essential to check the credibility of sources used in written work and to ensure that they match the current understanding of a subject. Outdated, disproven, or wrong sources can lead an author to conclusions that are not viable and could potentially waste months of hard research. For primary scientific sources, an excellent way to check credibility is to search how many times a work has been cited and to research if other sources have refuted it. For a secondary source, check the given sources and ensure they come from legitimate knowledge-bases. Overall, diligence and careful collection of sources both primary and secondary will result in higher quality work with more respectability.