Different assignments will call for different types of information sources. Sources can be regarded as primary or secondary depending on their:

  • originality
  • proximity to the source or event.

Primary sources come directly from the source or person. They are original materials, which have not been filtered through interpretation. Examples include:

  • statistics, interviews and surveys
  • autobiographies, diaries and original writing
  • empirical journal articles
  • books (when reporting original research or ideas)
  • newspaper articles (when written at the time of an event)
  • photographs, music and art work
  • statutes and law reports.

Secondary sources analyse, interpret and comment on primary information. Examples include:

  • biographies
  • journal articles (when summarising the findings of others)
  • books (when giving a topic overview or summary)
  • newspaper articles (when offering commentary or opinions)
  • literature reviews
  • encyclopaedias

The terms primary and secondary may have a discipline specific meaning. If you are in doubt, check with your tutor. For example, in legal research, primary sources are caselaw and legislation. Law students are introduced to these concepts at the commencement of study.

Why bother to make the distinction?

Distinguishing between types of sources enables critical evaluations to be made about the information. Watch the video below (view transcript).

Most scholarly research is based on primary sources because it generates more accurate and efficient research.

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