Primary Source or Secondary Source? That Is the Question

During academic research, there are two types of information sources; primary and secondary. A primary source is a record of an original event and is thus, first-hand evidence or ‘raw’ information or data obtained via direct access. In contrast, secondary sources describe, interpret, evaluate, or analyze information or data from the work of others. Therefore, a secondary source gives information about a primary source.

The difference can initially seem simple but determining it between the two sources can sometimes be a headache, especially as some sources of information can be both primary and secondary. This can cause problems and if you want your writing to be credible, read on to get it right!

Primary Source Vs Secondary Source Examples

As we have established, primary source information will be created at the time of the event or shortly after the event. It is important to collect it when carrying out research as it will provide original or ‘raw’ information. Yet, secondary sources involve information that people use to begin developing initial understanding of a topic. Thus, secondary sources are a summary or collection of existing data that is a step removed from the original event and will be presented along with a full citation of the original source.

So, let’s look at some examples of primary and secondary sources to further clarify the difference…

Primary Sources Example

Secondary Source Outcome


Analysis of the book in a magazine.


Description of the painting in a book.

Letters and diaries of Martin Luther King Jr.

Biography of Martin Luther King Jr.

Essay by Aristotle

Textbook with analysis of Aristotle's ideas.

Photographs of September 11, 2001.

Documentary about New York. 

Government documents about disability rights. 

Newspaper discussing changes to this law. 

Music recordings. 

A textbook that teaches how to play the piano.

An opinions survey. 

Online blog post discussing results of the survey. 

An empirical study on violence in California.

Literature review citing this study. 

So, think primary: first-hand, secondary: second-hand! Seems simple? Well, just to confuse things, some sources of information can be both primary and secondary!

Primary and Secondary Sources

You sometimes really need to think hard as regards the purpose of your writing to accurately decipher whether a source is primary or secondary. What may initially seem a primary source may in fact be a secondary source or vice versa. If the context, person, or technique that created the source is your central focus, it is then a primary source. You need to consider carefully what exactly you are aiming to research as shown in the examples below:

  • If you are researching the writing of a famous author, a review of one of their novels would be a secondary source. But if you are researching the critics reception of their writing, then critics reviews are primary sources of information. Here, you basically analyze the critic's work.
  • When researching the causes of globalization, a documentary about the causes of globalization is a secondary source of information. However, if you are researching filmmaking techniques used in documentaries, the globalization documentary is now a primary source.
  • If you need to analyze a country’s economic policy, a newspaper article about this country’s policy is a secondary source. Whereas, if you intend to analyze newspaper coverage of the economic policy, the newspaper article is then a primary source of information.
  • If your paper is on racism and you mention an online blog post that concludes academic works concerning racism, it’s a secondary source. But if you analyze the blog or its author themselves, it becomes primary. 


What if you are not sure if a source is primary or secondary?

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • ​Was the source directly created by a person involved in the events that you are researching? Yes (primary), no (secondary).
  • Does the source give original information? Yes (primary), no (secondary).
  • Are you analyzing the source directly? Yes (primary), no (secondary).

Do I always need to cite primary and secondary sources?

Yes, always make sure you properly cite any sources according to your institution’s recommended citation style. This adds credibility to your work and helps you to avoid unnecessary accusations of plagiarism.

Are primary sources or secondary sources of information better?

Both primary and secondary sources of information are used in research, but it is from the analysis of primary sources that new knowledge stems. However, primary sources of information can be time consuming and costly to obtain.

What is a tertiary source of information?

A tertiary source helps you to locate primary and secondary sources only e.g., a bibliography or index.

How Can I Identify the Type of My Citation?

Ask yourself about the origin of your resource. If you have found it in some magazine and it already has ISBN or DOI, most likely it means that you are dealing with processed data. Likewise, if you have collected samples of questionnaires yourself,  deal with a movie or a governmental document, you approach a study with some new firsthand info.

In summary, the difference between primary and secondary sources is not always clear but getting it right, along with correct citations, can help make your research a credible piece of work and avoid unwanted and unintentional plagiarism accusations. If unsure about whether a source is primary or secondary, consider in depth the purpose of your writing and ask yourself the suggested questions in the FAQ’s section above to ensure you succeed! Good luck!

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