Secondary sources are works that analyze, interpret, or merely describe historical or scientific events. They’re written based on firsthand accounts without being firsthand accounts themselves. Secondary sources draw on the data and experiences from primary sources to reassess the information and draw conclusions by combining them with information from other sources.
Because primary sources aren’t always accessible to everyone, secondary sources often provide a simpler and consolidated version of the same vital information. Below, we give a more precise definition of secondary sources and explain how to use them in academic writing, along with a list of examples of secondary sources.
What are secondary sources?
Unlike primary sources, which are created by people with firsthand experience in a topic, secondary sources analyze, interpret, and describe the firsthand accounts of other people to make them more accessible or to give context to an event. If a historian translates an ancient Egyptian diary and writes a book about what they discovered, the actual diary is an example of a primary source, and the historian’s book is an example of a secondary source.
Although primary sources are more reliable and authoritative, secondary sources are just as essential to scientific and educational communities. Not everyone has access to primary sources, and even if they do, they might not be able to make sense of them (for example, if the source is written in a dead language or includes data sets). Secondary sources repackage the primary source’s key information in a way that’s both easier to understand and capable of mass production to reach more people.
Moreover, creators of secondary sources are often specialists themselves, so they’re able to add new insights that the reader might not have gotten from analyzing the primary source alone. Secondary sources often combine different reference materials to point out connections and patterns, revealing new discoveries that a single primary source alone wouldn’t show. That makes both primary and secondary sources crucial to good research.
Secondary source examples
What are secondary sources in the pool of all research materials? Here’s a quick list of the most common types of secondary sources researchers can use:
- Books aggregating information on a specific topic
- Educational textbooks
- Thesis papers and dissertations
- Reviews and critiques of artwork
- Biographies (not autobiographies)
- Reports collecting data from other studies
- Nonpersonal essays and editorials
- Articles that interpret preexisting information, as opposed to breaking news
How to find a secondary source
One of the main advantages of using secondary sources for research is that they’re readily available. It’s much easier to borrow or buy a book about Roman architecture than it is to fly to Italy and look at Roman ruins!
Secondary sources are abundant, so you can find them in all the popular research hubs, such as libraries, bookstores, news sites, and online databases. Sometimes the problem is they’re too abundant, and you’re not sure which secondary source on a particular subject to choose. Try finding recommendations from experts, like teachers, or reading reviews online to see which secondary sources are best for your topic.
How to evaluate a secondary source
In addition to determining whether a source is primary or secondary, you also want to evaluate its reliability. People with biases or hidden agendas can misinterpret data from primary sources for their own self-serving goals, so you have to be careful when choosing your sources.
For starters, check the source’s bibliography. Most secondary sources list their own sources in a bibliography, whereas primary sources don’t need bibliographies because they are the source. The presence of a bibliography is the quickest way to identify a secondary source.
Another suggestion is to look at the creator; if they’re not directly involved in the events of the topic, it’s a secondary source. Regardless of whether the source is primary or secondary, you should still assess whether the creator is trustworthy. Do some digging to see if they have any motives for falsifying or skewing information or misleading their audience.
Cross-referencing the information is a good way to test the accuracy of a secondary source. Check to see if the information from the source in question matches what your other, previously verified sources say.
Lastly, there’s a lot to be said about where you find your secondary sources. School libraries are usually good about filtering out untrustworthy sources, compared to, say, a random website on page seven of your search results. If you’re ever in doubt, check the cited materials in a source’s bibliography.
How to use a secondary source
Though they’re not primary sources, secondary sources still need to be cited properly in research papers. Even if you paraphrase a secondary source instead of copying it word for word, you still need to credit it to avoid plagiarism.
The way you cite a secondary source depends on the style guide you’re using. The three most common style guides for academics are MLA, APA, and Chicago, and each has its own particular rules and requirements. Keep in mind that you must cite your secondary sources both in the text and at the end in the bibliography.
While all three styles are considered equal, refer to your assignment or course requirements to see which one is preferred.
Secondary sources FAQs
What are secondary sources?
Secondary sources are analyses, interpretations, or descriptions of events or topics taken from firsthand accounts, but they’re not firsthand accounts themselves. Secondary sources are contrasted to primary sources, which are created by people directly involved.
Where can you find secondary sources?
Secondary sources are abundant and can be found in libraries, bookstores, news sites, and online databases.
How do you use secondary sources?
Just like primary sources, secondary sources need to be cited correctly to avoid plagiarism. The rules for proper citation vary depending on which style guide you’re using, typically APA, MLA, or Chicago.
What are some examples of secondary sources?
The most common examples of secondary sources are books that collect information from various primary sources, including textbooks. Other common examples of secondary sources include biographies (but not autobiographies), art reviews, thesis papers and dissertations, reports that gather data from other studies, and nonpersonal essays.