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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 understand how to use them appropriately.

A primary source is a primary or original document or physical object that was written or created:
• at the time the situation under study happened, 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, speeches, letters, personal narratives, interviews, firsthand stories, emails
• written creative works: novels, poems, plays, scripts
• components of research studies: experiment results, surveys, reports, collated data, records, observations, interview transcripts or findings
• original documents: original manuscripts, government or court documents, maps, photographs, datasets, 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. They are also common in the social sciences, which rely on datasets, surveys, observations and interviews to reach conclusions. 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. If your research relies on interviews or surveys, the potential for bias in the participants and its capacity to affect your results will need to be considered.

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: non-fiction books, peer-reviewed academic articles, textbooks, magazines, encyclopaedias
• history-based documents: historical movies, historical textbooks, documentaries
• reviews: book reviews, literature reviews.

It is 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. Selecting peer-reviewed secondary sources can help in ensuring the reliability of information and the strength of their analysis.

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.

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 23 April 2024.

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