This video discusses tips on how to tell the difference between primary and secondary sources.
Welcome to this short video that outlines what primary and secondary sources are and how you can tell them apart. This is an important concept for many reasons, as it can be difficult to identify what type of resource you have found when conducting research. For assignments, professors sometimes specify what types of sources they want and recognizing which type you have found is vital.
Primary and secondary sources are two types of information sources that serve different purposes. A primary source could be a document written at the time of study or even a physical object. A few examples of this type of source are speeches, personal letters, original research studies and pieces of art such as paintings or sculptures. A secondary source is created when an author interprets and analyzes a primary source. Examples include books, encyclopedias and even magazine and journal articles reviewing original research studies. An easy way to think about it is that a primary source speaks to the actual creation of the source, where a secondary source speaks in detail about something that has already been created.
There are a few questions you can ask yourself when trying to determine what type of source you have found. Can you tell if the author of your source actually conducted the research if it is a study? Then it is probably done by him/her and is primary. Is the author only talking about other researchers’ studies? If that is the case, it’s probably secondary since that author is not giving information on an experiment or test he/she actually ran. When you look at the full text of the document, are there obvious section titles like Methods, Results, and Discussion? If so, it should be primary. All original research articles follow a similar pattern talking about the results of the study, how the researchers conducted it and they analyze their findings and present what they have learned. Make sense? Let’s practice.
Looking at this article, can you tell if it is primary or secondary? Let’s get a closer look. Here are the first two pages of the article. Does it sound like the author actually conduct an experiment or study? The answer is no, as the author never speaks about actions he or she took. It is reviewing information regarding the p53 gene. You’d certainly want to look at the rest of the article to make sure, but this is a secondary review article.
What about this example? Right away the heading RESULTS can be seen on the first page, as well as the author talking about “we” and “our results”. These are both great indicators of a primary source. On the second page there are extensive data graphs which are another hint. This article is certainly primary.
Here are some final tips to keep in mind. Make sure to look at the entire full text of the document as some articles can be tricky to identify. By looking at the citation within the database you located the article, many times it gives information on whether the article is a study or a review. If you know that sometimes this is mentioned, it is a great help! Finally you always want to take the time to evaluate the information presented in the source, is it going to help you answer your information need? If not then keep looking!
Remember, if you have any questions about this process, feel free to Ask a Librarian!