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What is the Difference between a Primary and Secondary Source?

Research generally incorporates both primary and secondary sources. It is important for students to recognise the difference between a primary and a secondary source and to understand how to use these two types of sources appropriately.

A primary source is an original document or physical object that was written or created:
• at the time the situation under study happens, or
• by a person who experienced or witnessed the situation directly or who has direct knowledge of it.

Examples of primary sources include:
• personal documents: diaries, novels, speeches, letters, personal narratives, interviews, firsthand stories, emails
• documents from research studies: theses, experiment results, reports, data or findings
• original documents: original manuscripts, government or court documents, maps, photographs, newspapers
• non-written original works: paintings, films, music.

Primary sources are commonly used when studying history because they offer a raw and original account from the points of view of people who have direct experience. However, because they are direct and firsthand sources, sometimes written by a particular person, it is possible that primary sources contain the biases, prejudices, concerns, worries or personal opinions of the authors. Thus, this information will need to be analysed carefully before being referred to in your essay or thesis.

A secondary source, in contrast, is a source that generalises, analyses, interprets, synthesises, evaluates, cites, comments on or discusses the original sources or situation under study.

Examples of secondary sources include:
• publications: books, textbooks, magazines, encyclopaedias, records
• history-based documents: historical movies, historical textbooks
• reviews: book reviews, peer-reviewed articles.

Through the analysis of many primary sources and the generalisations of the writers, secondary sources can help readers understand the topic more clearly. However, secondary sources are not created by people who have direct experience of the situation under study. Therefore, they may include inaccuracies, and some information might be too general or too narrow. It is also important to remember that bias and personal opinion is often present in secondary sources as well—not all researchers are objective. Students need to be careful when using secondary sources and always confirm the information by checking multiple reliable sources.

It is important to remember that whether or not a source is primary or secondary depends on who created it and when it was created, not the form of the source. For example, a magazine article can be a primary source if it is written by a person who has direct knowledge of the situation under study; however, it may be a secondary source if it comprises an analysis of what someone else has found.

You might also encounter the terms ‘primary source’ and ‘secondary source’ when consulting a referencing style guide. In this case, a primary source refers to any scholarly work that you have consulted directly, and may not necessarily fall under the definition provided above. A secondary source in this case refers to content that first appeared in another source.

For example, you might find a quotation from a primary source that has been reproduced in a textbook or an encyclopaedia that you would like to include in your essay or thesis. You should always try to find the original source, but if that’s not possible—perhaps it is out of print or difficult to find, or has been translated from a language you don’t understand—then you will need to cite both the primary source and the secondary source in your essay or thesis.

The best way to conduct research is to use both primary and secondary sources together. This will help you to gain a clearer and more in-depth understanding of what you are studying.

Updated 24 May 2023
Ellen McRae, PhD, AE (IPEd), MNZSTI
Senior Managing Editor