Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources
ENGA14 Finnish Institutions Research Paper (Hopkins)
What are Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources?
The ENGA14 paper requires the explication of a research question, which may
be supplemented by an original research
component. The research should be based on primary and secondary sources.
This document describes the distinctions between primary, secondary and
tertiary research sources.
Note that "primary" and "secondary" in this document refer to their
standard usage in the classification of academic source material. These
definitions are thus not equivalent to "the main sources I plan on
using" and "possible other things I might look at" (or similar
The 'Nutshell' Relationship of Primary, Secondary and Tertiary
Suppose you were beginning research on a wholly unknown topic. Your first
step would be to consult general references such as Wikipedia,
the Encyclopedia Britannica, etc. These are examples of "Tertiary"
sources general explanations condensed from 'common knowledge' on
the topic intended for a broad public audience. Tertiary sources are
usually not credited to a particular author. They are intended only to
provide a superficial overview of what the topic includes, its basic
terminology, and often references for further reading (which would usually
be Secondary sources, produced by established 'experts' on the topic). You
might use other tertiary sources, such as dictionaries, to get a fuller
sense of definitions and meanings of the field's terminology.
With a general concept of the topic now in mind, you would next consult
as many different secondary sources as possible to see what has already
been written on the topic, at different times and from different points of
view, by other scholars ('experts' on the topic). "Secondary" sources are
thus works written on the topic in question by other researchers, whose
work has been based on Primary sources after consultation with the
Secondary sources on the topic which had existed at the time. The "Review
of the Literature" component of full research papers is precisely this
wide-ranging review of what all known secondary sources currently say
about a given topic, as the foundation for the "new" information you plan
to provide in your research.
For your own "new" view of the topic, guided by your review of what
existing Secondary sources already say, you would also consult Primary
sources. Some of these may be the same as other scholars have already
consulted, some may be new that others had not consulted. Your "new"
research will usually identify new aspects of the topic which have emerged
from your study of primary sources that other scholars had either (a) not
known to consult; or (b) consulted but drew 'false' or 'incomplete'
conclusions from (at least in your opinion).
In short, academic research is based primarily on the analysis of
primary sources, guided by perspectives on the topic which already exist
via secondary sources. As tertiary sources only provide general,
simplified background on a topic, they would seldom be used in
university-level research or writing (unless, for example, what is
normally a "tertiary" source is used in the capacity of a "primary"
source, as described below with the example of language students comparing
changing definitions over a series of dictionaries).
Academic Research is Based on Primary Sources
Academic research is based on primary sources: original 'material' from
the field one is studying, including books, articles and letters written
by the people or in the field one is studying, interviews with persons
involved in the field, speeches and lectures which they delivered, diaries
they kept, etc. Scholars consult primary sources in search of new
material and/or insights that have not previously been reported by other
scholars, or have been reported differently or perhaps even 'mis-reported'
by other scholars. (The reporting by other scholars would usually be a
"secondary" source for that topic or field.)
For research in the Humanities, primary sources are usually original
"records" which were created at the time an historical event occurred (an
"historical event" is any phenomenon or procedure which has taken place
[or is still taking place] in a particular time and place). Such sources
are the "raw material," "firsthand information" or "original thinking"
relevant to an event. They include relevant records of the event, for
example letters, photographs, diaries, or speeches. Eyewitness accounts,
contemporaneous journalistic reports, or even memoirs and oral histories
which are created well after the actual event can also be considered
We often think of primary sources as being written, but they may also
be in other forms, including interviews, recordings, paintings, or even
computer software, e-mail correspondence and web pages. Examples of
primary sources include:
Primary sources also include the legal status in which an event occurred,
or which prevented it from occurring, including relevant municipal,
regional, national and international laws, treaties, agreements and other
regulatory protocols. The system of law valid in a particular country at
a particular time, in other words, is a "primary source" for analyzing
what happened in that country during that period.
- Personal papers
- Letters (both personal and business)
- Diaries and journals (both personal and business)
- Photographs & paintings, sketches, original maps, etc.
- Advertisements, posters, and banners
- Genealogy records, both personal/family and from public records
- News footage (newsreels, videotapes or audiotapes, etc.)
- Newspaper articles written at time of the event
- Speeches which are contemporaneous with the event
- Oral histories
- Minutes of meetings related to the event
- Vital records (birth and death records, census records, court
records, tax records, property records, church registers, or other
public and private records).
- Material artifacts (physical objects or evidence related to the
event, including articles of clothing, furnishings, coins, stamps,
buildings, tools, weapons,etc.)
- Creative works, such as novels, essays, poetry, music, art, and audio
or video recordings
- More recently, computer software, e-mail archives, web documents,
- . . . and many additional types of similar materials.
Data created through original research is also a primary source. Such
data includes questionnaires, surveys (e.g. research
"instruments") or statistical data relevant to an event which are
produced by a researcher.
What Are Secondary Sources?
Secondary sources are accounts of events which were created well after the
event occurred. Secondary sources are based on primary sources
they are usually studies which analyze, evaluate, interpret, or criticize
primary sources. By assessing, repackaging and distributing information,
secondary sources make the information more accessible.
Scholars consult secondary sources to determine what others have
already reported about a particular research topic. In one's own
research, secondary sources are often compared with one another, for
example, to show how many others agreed (or disagreed) on a particular
point, such as your own line of thinking from your work with primary
Secondary sources can be articles in newspapers or popular magazines,
book or movie reviews, or articles found in scholarly journals that
address someone else's original research. Secondary sources are
"second-hand information," analogous to human conversation. If I tell you
something, I am your primary source. If you tell someone else what I told
you, you are a secondary source.
Distinguishing Between Primary and Secondary Sources
The distinction between primary and secondary sources is not always clear;
depending on how or why it is being used, a secondary source may also be a
primary source. For example Juhani Suomi's biographies of Urho Kekkonen
could be considered either secondary or primary sources. The distinction
depends on how the material is used. If you are researching Urho Kekkonen,
Suomi's books would be secondary sources because they include his opinions
about Kekkonen's presidency. On the other hand, if you are evaluating
Suomi's historical methodology, his books would be primary sources for the
way in which Suomi has interpreted the Kekkonen era.
Thus, one cannot always determine if a record is primary or secondary
just by its source. It is more how a source is used, rather than its
type, which determines to which category it belongs. For example,
articles in newspapers and magazines are usually considered secondary
sources. However, if a story about the Winter War in a Finnish newspaper
in 1939 was a firsthand, eyewitness account, the story would be a primary
source. On the other hand, if the reporter included additional material
which was gathered through interviews or other investigations, the article
would be a secondary source. An interview in Suosikki with Juice
Leskinen would be a primary source, but a review in Suosikki of
Juice's latest album would be a secondary source. Further, professional or
scholarly journals may include research articles which are primary
materials, and also review articles, which are not.
Are 'Tertiary' Sources (including Wikipedia) Acceptable in
In addition to primary and secondary sources, there are also tertiary
sources. These are sources that compile or digest other sources. Some
reference materials and textbooks are considered tertiary sources when
their chief purpose is to list, summarize or simply repackage ideas or
other information. Tertiary sources include dictionaries and
encyclopedias, Wikipedia and similar user-contributed online
'encyclopedias' and reference material, as well as various digests
(including the Reader's Digest and similar) and schoolbooks.
Generally, tertiary sources are not considered to be acceptable
material on which to base academic research. However, this depends on the
topic being covered and the reason the source is used. If a language
scholar is comparing different definitions of terms in a selection of
contemporary dictionaries, or describing different shades of meaning of
the translation into Finnish of a term from English on the basis of
available dictionaries, the use of these dictionaries as sources would not
only be entirely appropriate and essential to the research, but also take
on the status of primary sources.
Likewise, guidebooks, manuals, cookbooks and the like may be primary
sources for the types of instructions given for certain tasks, as well as
for comparisons of these over time (e.g. comparing older to newer cookbook
versions as insights into changing food culture, language, etc.
Such categories as statistics and population registers, census data,
are all 'tertiary' in the sense that they have been compiled by [usually
unknown] others, as opposed to you having researched your own figures for
the population of a given entity at a specific time, but Finnish census
statistics are certainly legitimate sources for any Finland-based academic
Likewise, if one were comparing the frequency of change in certain
entries in Wikipedia, or how information presented in
Wikipedia varied from other contemporary resources, then the
entries would all be used as primary sources, as they are the focus and
main point of the comparative research itself. However, the main value of
Wikipedia (or general encyclopedias, abstracts, etc.) for academic
work is to get a quick overview of the background and possible issues
related to a certain topic, to know how to focus one's research in primary
and secondary sources on one's specific interest with that topic.
General Classifications of Selected Primary, Secondary and Tertiary
descriptions of travel
paintings and photographs
prior books & papers on a topic
literary criticism & interpretation
history & historical criticism
reviews of law and legislation
essays on morals and ethics
analyses of social policy
study and teaching material
dictionaries & encyclopedias
guidebooks and manuals
Research & Academic Writing
ENGA14 Class Schedule
Last Updated 10 January 2013