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Primary Sources and Original Research

Helpful tips on locating and evaluating primary sources and original research

Primary Research vs. Review Articles

Scholarly journals can be great places to locate primary research, however they also contain articles which review books, editorials, and review articles. 

Review articles may be long and contain citations, so at first glance they may look like a primary research article.  The authors of a review article usually evaluate, discuss, and analyze other's research on the topic, but offer no original research themselves and cannot be considered primary sources.  They can be helpful to gain an overview of the research that has been done in that area, and can help identify primary research articles by other authors. 

Primary research articles will generally follow a standard format; including sections with titles like "Methods" , "Results", and "Discussion".  Most will also have an abstract at the beginning of the article and a works cited list at the end.  Like with other types of articles, reading the abstract can often give you clues as to what the article will be about.   Look for phrases like "we measured", "we tested" , or "in our study we found" as these are often used in the presentation of original research.  Many primary research articles in the social and natural sciences will also contain graphs, charts, data tables or illustrations.

Three Types of Sources

There are three types of sources:

1) Primary Sources

  • Original materials that provide direct evidence or first-hand testimony concerning a topic or event.
  • Primary sources can be contemporary sources created at the time when the event occurred (e.g., letters and newspaper articles) or later (e.g., memoirs and oral history interviews).
  • Primary sources may be published or unpublished.  Unpublished sources are unique materials (e.g., family papers) often referred to as archives and manuscripts.
  • What constitutes a primary source varies by discipline. How the researcher uses the source generally determines whether it is a primary source or not.

2) Secondary Sources

  • Works that interpret, analyze, and discuss the evidence provided by primary sources (e.g., scholarly books and articles).
  • Secondary sources are generally a second-hand account or observation at least one step removed from the event.
  • Secondary sources, however, can be considered to be primary sources depending on the context of their use. For example, Ken Burns' documentary of the Civil War is a secondary source for Civil War researchers, but a primary source for those studying documentary filmmaking.

3) Tertiary Sources

  • Books or articles that synthesize or distill primary and secondary sources, often in a convenient, easy-to-read form (e.g., dictionaries, encyclopedias, indexes, and textbooks). 

Source:  David Kupas's "Finding  Primary Sources" libguide:  URL:

Side-by-Side Comparison

Example . . . Primary Sources Secondary Sources
The Historian researching World War I might utilize:

Newspaper articles, weekly/monthly news magazines, diaries, correspondence, and diplomatic records from 1914 to 1919.

Articles in scholarly journals analyzing the war, possibly footnoting primary documents; books analyzing the war.
The Literary Critic researching literature written during World War I might utilize: Novels, poems, plays, diaries, and correspondence of the time period. Published articles in scholarly journals providing analysis and criticism of the literature; books analyzing the literature; formal biographies of writers from the era.
The Psychologist researching trench warfare and post-traumatic stress disorder in World War I veterans might utilize: Original research reports on the topic or research notes taken by a clinical psychologist working with World War I veterans. Articles in scholarly publications synthesizing results of original research; books analyzing results of original research.
The Scientist researching long-term medical effects of chemical warfare on exposed veterans might utilize: Published articles in scholarly journals reporting on a medical research study and its methodology. Published articles in scholarly journals analyzing results of an original research study; books doing the same.

Source:  David Kupas's "Finding  Primary Sources" libguide:  URL: