Written by: Hui-Yu Hsiung

When writing a research paper, you will need to consult a variety of sources of information. For some research papers, you may be required to use primary sources. What are primary sources? Sources of information are often categorized as primary and secondary sources based on their originality. Primary sources refer to “original materials created at the time under study that have not been altered or distorted in any way” (Meroño-Peñuela & Hoekstra, 2014, p. 282). They are first-hand, authoritative information of an event, a person, an object at the historical time period created by persons who participated in or directly observed the event described. What is defined as a primary source varies from discipline to discipline. For example, in art and literature fields, primary sources are creative works, such as paintings, novels, poems, video or audio recordings, photographs, and music scores. In social sciences, primary sources focus on census statistical data, field notes, interview transcripts, and speeches. In STEM and law fields, primary sources include academic journal articles reporting the design and findings of original research, government documents, patents, and court records. Besides, other common primary sources include autobiographies, diaries, personal correspondence, and internet communications on emails, blogs and social media.

In contrast, secondary sources interpret or analyze primary sources. They are “documents that relate or discuss information originally presented elsewhere, written after the fact with the benefit of hindsight” (Meroño-Peñuela & Hoekstra, 2014, pp. 282-283). These resources often provide detailed reference information on primary sources. In general, they can be found in books and scholarly journals. The commentary, criticism and interpretation of works are key secondary sources in art and literature fields. In social sciences, STEM and law fields, secondary sources are the interpretation of raw statistical data, reviews of law and social policy, as well as scholarly journal articles that analyze or synthesize results of original research.

A well-done research paper uses both primary and secondary sources. They complement each other. Primary sources provide direct access to authoritative information about your topic while secondary sources give you an overview of background information on the topic showing how the topic relates to existing research. When writing a literature review, secondary sources are most useful. To learn more about primary and secondary sources, and how to determine the relevance and reliability of a source, the UNT Libraries has a comprehensive library guide on Beginning the Research Process. As always, feel free to leave comments or contact Ask Us with any questions you may have.

Meroño-Peñuela, A. & Hoekstra, R. (2014). What is linked historical data?. In Janowicz K., Schlobach S., Lambrix P.,& Hyvönen E. (Eds), Knowledge Engineering and Knowledge Management. Proceedings of the 19th International Conference on Knowledge Engineering and Knowledge Management (pp. 282-287). Cham, Switzerland: Springer International Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-13704-9_22

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