Skip to content Skip to Live Chat

What is the Difference Between a Primary and Secondary Source?

Apr 5, 2023

Gathering research requires putting together evidence and information from a variety of sources. Citing sources shows readers how a writer has researched and formed conclusions. Sources provide historical context and allow scholars to extend credit to other researchers’ and ideas. 

In academic research, whether it’s in the social sciences, humanities, or natural sciences, it’s important to distinguish between the types of sources used. From creating a convincing argument that informs the reader that an author is reporting firsthand impressions, to relaying the experiences and opinions of others, both primary and secondary sources are essential to creating novel, interesting, and effective academic research and writing. 

When writers use primary sources, they are using raw information and firsthand evidence such as interview transcripts, memoirs, statistical data, and works of art. Secondary sources, on the other hand, constitute secondhand information and commentary made by other researchers. Secondary sources include journal articles, reviews, and academic books. 

What is a Primary Source?

A primary source is an original material created at the time a historical event occurs, or soon afterward, and can be original documents, creative works, material published in modern times, institutional and government documents, or relics and artifacts. Authors citing primary sources relay the subjective interpretation of a witness to an event, which allows historians to use the materials to interpret and analyze the past. 

Diaries, letters, memoirs, personal journals, speeches, manuscripts, direct interviews, and other unpublished works can be primary sources and typically serve as the main objects of an analysis or research work. Published pieces, including newspaper or magazine articles, photographs, audio or video recordings, research reports in the natural or social sciences, or original literary or theatrical works are all considered primary sources.  

An example of how a primary source is used includes the collection of research associated with the spread of a particular disease and the use of source material  that may include medical statistical data, interviews with medical experts and patients, and laboratory results. In cases of research related to historical events, an author may not be able to access direct evidence because the people associated with the event may no longer be alive, but sources produced by witnesses at that time may be used. This includes photographs, video footage, letters, diary entries, and newspaper reports at the time of the event. 

What is a Secondary Source?

Secondary sources are created by someone who did not experience firsthand or participate in the events or conditions being researched. Secondary sources are used to interpret and analyze primary sources. These sources are one or more steps removed from the event and may contain pictures, quotes, or graphics of primary sources. They are used to interpret, assign value to, conjecture upon, and draw conclusions about the events reported in primary sources. Textbooks, edited works, books, and articles that interpret or review research works, histories, biographies, literary criticism and interpretation, reviews of law and legislation, political analyses, and commentaries are all examples of secondary sources. 

Authors of research studies cite secondary sources to support arguments, formulate new theories, or argue against existing information in the field. Using secondary sources, researchers reinforce theories or arguments based on primary sources.  

Differences Between a Primary and Secondary Source

Primary and secondary sources are the two types of materials used for research, and while both are important to creating well-developed projects, they are vastly different. Primary sources offer raw information, or the first-hand evidence compiled by research, whereas secondary sources interpret or analyze the information from primary sources. 

The most significant difference between two different types of sources is that primary sources gives direct access to the subject of the research, while secondary sources provide second-hand information and commentary from other researchers.  

Secondary sources offer summaries, critiques, opinions, and analyses, and are written by people who did not witness or have a direct part in the event or events they are describing. Based on the accounts of primary sources, this type of source is the author’s interpretation of the event or subject matter they are writing about. 

Information

The information gathered using primary sources offers direct, first-hand information, while secondary sources relay other peoples’ interpretation of the event. Information based on primary source material gives readers direct access to the subject of the research, while secondary sources provide commentary from other researchers.  

Objectivity

On occasion, primary sources can be both subjective and personal because an individual’s firsthand account is based on the views and opinions formed from the experience. 

Secondary sources are typically objective and gives the reader the opportunity to evaluate a source by purpose and objectivity by asking questions such as if the information provided is biased, or whether the purpose of the research is to inform, teach, sell, entertain, provide public services, or persuade.  

Function

As a firsthand or contemporary account of an event or topic, a primary source has not been modified by interpretation and offers an original thought or new information. Primary sources function as the main object of analysis in a research study, whereas secondary resources are used to describe, interpret, generalize, or synthesize primary sources. Secondary sources help readers understand second-hand information and commentary and can detail how and why a historical event occurred. 

Primary or Secondary Source?

Determining if a document or research project uses primary or secondary sources isn’t always easily discernible based on the publication it’s found in. Newspaper and magazine articles are usually considered secondary sources. However, if a story in a newspaper describes a war through an eyewitness account, then it would be a primary source. 

To use sources efficiently and in the correct manner, it’s important to identify the background of each source and the reason for including it in an author’s work. This helps researchers distinguish between their contribution and the argument expressed by the sources used. Helpful questions a writer may ask when citing primary or secondary sources include:  

  • How does the author know these details (names, dates, times)? 
  • Was the author present at the event or soon on the scene?  
  • Where does this information come from—personal experience, eyewitness accounts, or reports written by others? 
  • Are the author's conclusions based on a single piece of evidence, or have many sources been taken into account (e.g., diary entries, third-party eyewitness accounts, impressions of contemporaries, and newspaper accounts)?  

All source materials used should be assessed critically, as even the most ethical and thorough work is viewed through the eyes of the writer or interpreter.

Recommended Articles

Take a look at other articles from WGU. Our articles feature information on a wide variety of subjects, written with the help of subject matter experts and researchers who are well-versed in their industries. This allows us to provide articles with interesting, relevant, and accurate information.