Tertiary Sources: How to Use and Define

You probably use tertiary sources often in your studies without even knowing it. While it is not popular in research papers, you can still use it for your study materials. Such resources provide a general understanding of the subject and can highlight important data you can use for further research. 

This article discusses what tertiary sources are and how to make the most out of them in your paper, with examples and advice on how to embed them in your writing. 

What is a tertiary source?

A tertiary source is any source that takes information from various resources and lists or summarizes it. 

It is one of the source types that can support your research paper, along with primary and secondary resources. Understanding how primary and secondary sources differ will help you understand tertiary sources. While primary resources offer information from an original source, secondary ones state information received from the primary sources. Research papers, interviews, videos, and statistical data are examples of primary sources; articles or books are usually considered secondary sources. 

How are tertiary sources different from primary and secondary sources? 

Unlike primary and secondary resources, tertiary ones do not provide any insights or original information, simply stating facts and summarizing other resources.

Here are a few tertiary sources examples: 

  • Encyclopedias as they give structured information on a certain subject;
  • Directories list words and their definitions;
  • Guidebooks collect information from various resources; 
  • Bibliographies list the resources used in research papers or studies. 

Which of the following is not an example of a tertiary source?

Primary and secondary sources differ from tertiary. An example of the primary resource can be a dissertation, article, photograph, or interview ─ everything that comes from the first hand and expresses an opinion. Secondary sources mostly include scholarly articles, reviews, and criticisms ─ pieces of content that talk about the work of others or evaluate it. 

But how do you know exactly if the source is secondary or tertiary? Ask yourself if the source summarizes or lists information without interpreting it in any way. If yes, the source is more tertiary. The tertiary source definition implies you should not provide any insights or evaluation information provided. Let’s look at a few examples: 

Tertiary sources examples

You can tell the source is tertiary since it just collects information and presents it concisely and dryly.

How and when should you use tertiary sources?

Most likely, you will not cite a tertiary source in your paper. As such sources collect information from primary and secondary sources, they can lay a solid foundation for the research. Pay attention to terms and historical data, get general information on the topic, or refer to the sources you can cite in your paper. 

Do not neglect using a tertiary source ─ use it as a reference at the beginning of the research to win time. Focus on finding primary and secondary resources when you come across tertiary sources and use them to get a general understanding of the topic you are writing about. 


What is a tertiary source, and how do you cite it?

A tertiary source is a type of source that collects information from primary and secondary resources and lists it without analysis or evaluation. While tertiary resources are not usually used in research papers, you can mention some data from it using the following phrases at the beginning of your sentences: ‘Many people assume that’, ‘A number of ____ have recently suggested’, or ‘Studies have indicated’.

How do I tell if a source is tertiary? 

A tertiary source does not share a story, insight, or opinion. It simply summarizes facts collected from other sources and presents information concisely. 

What is a tertiary example? 

Dictionaries, bibliographies, guidebooks, Wikipedia, and encyclopedias are the examples of tertiary sources.

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