Chapter 4: Developing and Supporting Your Ideas

Primary and Secondary Sources


When preparing to write or speak about a topic, your first step is to gather information. You will need to do research to ensure that you provide your audience with sufficient background information and support your claims.

Doing research involves more than finding a few books or articles on a topic; a researcher’s job is to find useful, relevant, and reliable information, which can be challenging. This chapter will help by providing an introduction to research terminology and the research process.

Primary and Secondary Sources

You may hear sources described as either “primary” or “secondary,” and understanding this distinction can help you assess what types of information are useful for your various needs.

A primary source is one that is original and first-hand. This has different meanings depending on the disciplinary context, but generally refers to the product of someone’s original work, such as the results of a scientist’s study, or an author’s novel. You may access published primary sources in introductory college courses like this one, and you will definitely do so as you progress in your discipline. Keep in mind that primary sources are generally factual rather than analysis or interpretation, although not in all cases.

In your research, you more frequently use secondary sources, which are articles, books, and websites that involve analysis or interpretation of primary sources. While a scientific study would be a primary source, a magazine article about the findings of that study would be considered a secondary source.

Whether you use a primary or a secondary source depends on our purpose, topic, audience, and context. If you engage in undergraduate research in your junior or senior year and present at a conference, you will be expect- ed to have some primary research. However, for most of your college work, you will be looking for reliable secondary sources. One way to assess the quality of a secondary source is to look at its references or bibliography.

A reliable source will cite other sources to support its claims. Likewise, a well-researched speech will provide support for its argument by using evidence obtained from reliable sources.

Most researchers begin their work by evaluating the current information that exists on their topic. They may look at a combination of primary and secondary sources during this process. Their goal is to find out what is currently known about a topic and where the research may be headed. Stu- dents completing a research-based assignment will begin much the same way.


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