Primary sources and secondary information

Primary sources are original or first-hand sources including journal articles, conference papers, manuscripts and theses.

This category of material can also include statistical data, theories, photographs, letters or artefacts.

This material presents the first published record of original research and is not interpreted or processed by other commentators or researchers.

Secondary information synthesises, analyses, criticises or reports on the primary literature.

This category of literature includes review articles, textbooks, edited collections and other publications which report on the work of original researchers.

This form of literature provides a more “digested” version of the primary sources and explains or summarises the work of others. In secondary literature, authors use their own expertise and skills to summarise very complex ideas in a more easily understood way.

For example, textbooks are very useful. Often written by specialist experts and teachers, they provide :

  • Useful overviews of a subject which can be easily understood

  • A good grounding in a new discipline

  • A way to compare different ideas, theories and opinions

  • Facts and figures presented clearly

Monographs may provide more in-depth material, including detailed information, discussion and explanations of research. For science and technology, they may present data, explain experimental methods and so forth.

Writing and publishing a high quality book can take lengthy periods of time. Consequently, books do not necessarily provide the most up-to-date information or results. This is more important in some subjects than others. For the most recent research results and theories, researchers will often rely on journal articles and conference papers – primary forms of literature.

As a researcher try to gain access to primary material as often as you can, and get used to making your own analysis and interpretation of that evidence.

What different people draw from a source is often subjective and down to their own interpretation, viewpoint and experiences.

While using primary sources can be more challenging, forcing you not just to read or examine the source, but also to form your own judgements and undertake your own analysis of it, ultimately doing so allows you to put your own views across and make the research your own.

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