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How To Identify Primary And Secondary Sources

No matter what faculty you are in, it is always vital to know what kind of source you are using when doing an assignment. Often, for example, it will be set out in the guidelines for the work that a primary source be used and the student must deliver their own personal analysis of the information used.

The basic difference between primary and secondary sources lies in the “distance removed” the author is from the event, time or research context of the information. There is, of course, a wide degree of variation when it comes to the classification of sources, especially with regards to different fields of academia. There are significant differences between the liberal arts and scientific fields in how you should be able to identify sources.

Recognizing a primary source in the liberal arts

One can distinguish a primary source from a few simple rules. They are first-hand records of a specific time and event. They are located directly at the source and era when something took place and thus are colored by this contact.

Some examples of these primary sources would be:

  • Personal correspondence such as letters and e-mails
  • Photographs and artworks
  • Newspaper and magazine articles reporting the facts of an event
  • Speeches and addresses
  • Coins, household items and clothing
  • Buildings and human architectural interventions
  • Reports, surveys and censuses
  • Interviews conducted with those involved in an event

Recognizing a secondary source in the liberal arts

A secondary source is considered as something which is removed from the original event and is recorded with the intention of interpreting the original event or action. The purpose of a secondary source is to incorporate an understanding of the time with the benefit of being able to recognize what the event meant in a broader context. Thus, these sources employ a more analytical approach as opposed to a primary source which primarily focuses on the immediate facts.

Some examples of secondary sources are:

  • Biographies of historical characters
  • Reviews of books or art works
  • Newspaper articles interpreting the implications of an event
  • Books discussing or explaining historical events or periods
  • Analysis of information collected in a survey or census

Recognizing a primary source in scientific fields

The overall differences between primary and secondary sources in science can be seen as roughly the same as the humanities in that primary = original while secondary = interpretation of the original. Due to the different types of information and how it is gathered and presented, however, it is important to know the differences for academic writing.

Primary sources in the sciences are:

  • Outcomes of research
  • Results of experiments
  • Published proofs or theorems
  • Medical trials and their results
  • Results of observational studies

Recognizing a secondary source in scientific fields

Again, using a similar dichotomy to the other areas of academic writing, a secondary source in the sciences is the analysis or further scrutiny of published data and results. This is vital because of the importance for scientific works to be tested and criticized to prove their value for the overall community. It is also crucial for outcomes to be joined with other information and placed in the general context of a scientific field.

Some examples of secondary sources in the sciences are:

  • Books or articles analyzing published data
  • Use of a mathematical theorem to support a new idea
  • Review of extant research on a subject
  • Analysis of what the outcomes of a study mean in context

Why it’s important to know the difference

In academic writing, being able to distinguish between primary and secondary sources can be very important when deciding how a source should be judged and what weight it should be given. For example, research discovering that Neolithic humans were all very short could be interpreted by someone as an evolutionary adaption to having small doorways, the former is a fact, while the latter is merely an idea about why that fact happened. Similarly, a newspaper report on the Reichstag fire in 1933 might be very close and report accurately on the event but couldn’t possibly have an understanding of the context it took place in and the role that event was to play in the rise of Nazism. The more you understand sources, the more effectively you will be able to use them.