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Mary DePew Resource Center for Research Writing: Primary Vs. Secondary

How to evaluate

When evaluating primary or secondary sources, asked questions to help ascertain the nature and value of material being considered:

  • 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, along with third-party eyewitness accounts, impressions of contemporaries, newspaper accounts)?

Source materials must be assessed critically; even the most scrupulous and thorough work is viewed through the eyes of the writer/interpreter. This must be taken into account when one is attempting to arrive at the 'truth' of an event.


poem / novel / letter / diary
interview / oral history/ empirical research article
law / court case / census data / data set / memoir / autobiography / photographs / speeches

Primary Sources

Primary Sources

Primary sources are created by people or organizations directly involved in an issue or event. Primary sources are information before it has been analyzed by scholars, students, and others.

Some examples of primary sources:

  • diaries and letters
  • academic articles presenting original scientific research
  • news reports from the time of the event
  • literature (poems, novels, plays, etc.)
  • fine art (photographs, paintings, sculpture, pottery, music, etc.)
  • official records from a government, judicial court, or company
  • oral histories
  • speeches
  • autobiographies
  • dissertations: while they are considered primary resources, they are NOT considered peer-reviewed



critique / anthology / scholarly article
book / literature review / essay / review
analysis of data / biography / political commentary / analysis

Secondary Sources

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources analyze and interpret issues and events. Secondary sources, such as scholarly articles, are typically written by experts who study a topic but are not directly involved in events themselves. Also, secondary sources are usually produced some time after an event occurs and may well contain analysis of primary sources.

Some examples of secondary sources:

  • scholarly articles that analyze, review, and/or compare past research
  • news reports or articles looking back at a historical event
  • documentaries
  • biographies
  • encyclopedias
  • textbooks 

TIP: If you are looking at peer-reviewed articles, look at the abstract to verify if is a primary or secondary source! If the title mentions the words: review, it is likely to be secondary.