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Senior Seminar in Biology and Health Sciences

How do you decide if a resource is primary or secondary?

How do you tell what are primary, secondary or tertiary sources?  This page will look at the definitions of primary, secondary and tertiary resources and will offer some questions to help you analyze the type of research article you are utilizing. 

Questions to consider

To distinguish primary sources from secondary or tertiary sources, start by asking yourself these questions:

  • How far is the author of the article removed from the actual event being described?
  • How does the author know the details presented? 
  • Was the author present in the lab or research facility?
  • Is the document describing the actual study / research that was performed, or is the document relating the experiences of others?
  • Is there a methods section, results section, and a discussion section?
  • Do they use first person language, such as "we" or "I", when they describe the method of how the study was performed?

Primary sources

A primary source is the original, first-hand account of a study.  It is the report of the research process undertaken and the results of discoveries written by the researcher who made those discoveries, by the team involved in the experiments, or by the researchers involved in the clinical trials.  Primary sources are factual in nature.  They can usually be spotted by some key characteristics which are listed below:

     - Contains a Methods section (or a Materials and Methods section).  This section describes how the research was performed.

     - Contains a Results section.  This section will usually have charts and statistical tables that detail the actual results obtained.

     - Contains a Discussion section.  This section will discuss the results of the experiment and will often mention areas for further study.

     - Often contains words such as "we tested" and "in our study, we measured," indicating that those directly involved in the study are presenting the material.

Secondary sources

A secondary source analyzes and interprets the results from a primary source.  It is a second-hand account - an analysis or interpretation of research results or scientific discoveries. This type of source is removed from the original phenomenon or event. It is written by scholars / authors who have studied primary source material and have drawn conclusions from it.

Tertiary sources

Tertiary sources provide an overview of a topic by compiling information which has been collected and distilled from primary and secondary sources.  This type of information is usually found in resources such as almanacs, dictionaries, encyclopedias, fact books, indexes, and guidebooks.