Source Types & Ethical Use
An important part of composition is understanding which sources to employ. Generally, sources can be classified as scholarly or popular.
The following video provides a good overview of scholarly and popular sources:
The determination of a text as “popular” or “scholarly/academic” is one way to classify and to understand what type of information you are engaging with. Another way to classify sources is by considering whether they are , , or . Popular sources can be primary, secondary, or tertiary. Scholarly sources, also, can be primary, secondary, or tertiary.
What is a Primary Source?
Primary sources are texts that arise directly from a particular event or time period. They may be letters, speeches, works of art, works of literature, diaries, direct personal observations, newspaper articles that offer direct observations of current events, survey responses, tweets, other social media posts, original scholarly research, or any other content that comes out of direct involvement with an event or a research study.
Primary research is information that has not yet been critiqued, interpreted or analyzed by a second party.
Primary sources can be popular—published in newspapers, magazines or websites for the general public; or they can be academic—written by scholars and published in scholarly journals.
The following are types of primary sources:
- journals, diaries
- blog posts
- a speech
- data from surveys or polls
- scholarly journal articles in which the author(s) discuss the methods and results from their own original research/experiments
- photos, videos, sound recordings
- interviews or transcripts
- poems, paintings, sculptures, songs, or other works of art
- government documents, such as reports of legislative sessions, laws or court decisions, and financial or economic reports
- newspaper and magazine articles that report directly on current events (although these can also be considered Secondary)
- investigative journalism (sometimes considered Secondary as well)
What is a Secondary Source?
Secondary sources summarize, interpret, critique, analyze, or offer commentary on primary sources.
The author of a secondary source may be summarizing, interpreting, or analyzing data or information from someone else’s research, or offering an interpretation or opinion on current events, rather than reporting on something they’ve directly experienced. Thus, the secondary source is one step away from that original, primary topic/subject/research study.
Secondary sources can be popular—published in newspapers, magazines or websites for the general public; or they can be academic—written by scholars and published in scholarly journals.
The following are types of secondary sources:
- reviews of books, movies, or art
- summaries of the findings from other people’s research
- interpretations or analyses of primary source materials or other people’s research
- histories or biographies
- political commentary
- newspaper and magazine articles that mainly synthesize others’ research or primary materials (Remember, newspaper and magazine articles can also be considered primary, depending on the content.)
What is a Tertiary Source?
Tertiary sources are syntheses of primary and secondary sources. The person/people who compose a tertiary text are summarizing, compiling, and/or paraphrasing others’ work. These sources sometimes do not even list an author. Often you would want to use a tertiary source to find both Primary and Secondary sources. Keep in mind that it may sometimes be difficult to categorize something as strictly tertiary, and that it may depend on how you decide to use the item in your research and writing. Your instructors will often not accept the sole use of tertiary sources for your papers. Instead, you should strive to only use tertiary sources to find more academic sources, as they often have titles of other works, as well as links if they are web-based, to more academic primary and secondary sources that you can use instead.
Tertiary sources can be popular or academic depending on the content and publisher.
The following are common types of tertiary sources:
- fact books
The following video contains a recap of the previous information shared about primary, secondary, and tertiary sources:
Thinking about Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Sources and your Research Strategy
Now that you know what kinds of sources exist, it is important to remember that various disciplines find certain types of evidence to be more acceptable and appropriate than others. For instance, while the Humanities may consider anything from passages of text to art appropriate evidence, certain sciences may prefer data and statistics. What is most important to remember, no matter the discipline for which you are writing and pulling evidence, is that the evidence is never enough by itself. You must always be sure to explain why and how that evidence supports your claims or ideas.
The following is a list of questions you should consider before conducting research:
- What kinds of primary sources would be useful for your research project? Why? Where will you find them? Are you more interested in popular primary sources or scholarly primary sources? Why?
- What kinds of secondary sources could be useful for your project? Why? Are you more interested in popular secondary sources or scholarly secondary sources? Why?
- What kinds of tertiary sources might you try to access? In what ways would this tertiary source help you in your research?
texts that arise directly from a particular event or time period; any content that comes out of direct involvement with an event or a research study
sources that summarize, interpret, critique, analyze, or offer commentary on primary sources; in a secondary source, an author’s subject is not necessarily something that he/she/they directly experienced
sources that identify and locate primary and secondary sources