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What is a primary source and a secondary source?

Last Updated: Nov 18, 2014  |  79 Views

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The term "primary source" may mean different things in different academic disciplines.

In the sciences, a primary source refers to a published work that meets the following criteria:

  • Reports of new scientific discoveries 
  • Includes results of new experiments 
  • Includes results of clinical trials
  • Demonstrates political and social science results 
  • Is factual, but not interpretive 

In the humanities, primary sources include original works of literature or art or a first-hand account of an event that has not been interpreted by anyone other than its creator. These sources were either created during the time period being studied, or were created at a later date by someone who participated in the events (ex: memoirs). They reflect the individual viewpoint of a participant or observer.

Secondary sources are accounts written after the fact by people not present when an event took place. Such sources are second-hand interpretations of what occurred, often relying on primary sources for their discussions. Secondary sources benefit from the filter of time and differing cultural contexts and perspectives which may assist (or interfere with) scholarly analysis.

Secondary sources can include:

  • bibliographies 
  • bibliographical works 
  • commentaries and critical works
  • dictionaries and encyclopedias
  • books other than fiction or autobiographies
  • almanacs, fact books, guide books, and indices
  • journal, newspaper, and magazine articles written well after an event takes place 
Answered by Vickie DrakeBookmark and Share

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