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Types of Sources

Types of Sources

Author: Gavin McCall

This lesson discusses primary, secondary, and tertiary sources.

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Welcome back to English Composition. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.

What are we going to learn today? We're going to be learning about the three kinds of sources writers use as evidence for their claims and thesis statements. We'll learn to identify and use primary sources, secondary sources, and tertiary sources, and we'll see some examples of each.

In academic writing, we often need to use sources, generally found through research, to support the claims of our essays. They are most often used through a combination of analysis, coding, paraphrasing, and summarizing in order to show that the ideas and claims presented in an essay are not just the author's ideas, which makes the argument appeal to a broader audience. This is also part of the writer's participation in the academic conversation-- the ideas, topics, and issues that the essay is a part of. In any research project, the writer will find more related sources than could possibly be used, so we all need to be selective about which sources will work best for our purposes. There are three primary criteria to consider. We should select sources that are most closely aligned with the thesis as well as those that are most likely to appeal to the audience, and the sources that are most important to establishing the credibility of the writer and his or her ideas.

As we heard earlier, there are three types of sources. The first we'll look at are primary sources. These are documents or objects that are as close to the source topic or event as possible. Using these sources generally requires the writer to conduct his or her own analysis of the source. The originality means that for most essays, primary sources are key to building original, relevant ideas and claims.

Primary sources come in many forms, but some of the most common are literary texts-- including novels, poems, short stories and creative nonfiction-- as well as films, TV shows, songs or albums, paintings, and other works of art and creative media. They could also be historical artifacts, including photographs, news articles, legal records, census records, and physical objects, or even firsthand accounts, either written or recorded, of an event. Then they can be letters, diaries, interviews, speeches. And in the sciences, primary sources can be lab reports, published research articles and conference proceedings, patents, mathematical proofs, technical documents, and more. Any and all of these can be used as primary sources-- documents or objects to be analyzed and discussed in order to further the essay' goals.

Secondary sources are one of the most common kinds of sources for research papers. These are expressions of original research related to primary sources. Thus, they take the writer one step further from the source topic or event, but sometimes, they can be even more useful, as they often contain another writer's analysis of and thoughts about whatever text, document, object, or event is being studied. Secondary sources generally follow specific conventions related to their particular field of study, and writers in many fields can use these sources for several reasons.

They can use them to discover what experts or others are saying about the primary source or topic or to show their engagement with the academic conversation-- the broader metaphorical conversation around the primary source or topic, that is. Writers can also use secondary sources to provide further support for their ideas or claims or as a point of disagreement or distinction between their ideas and those of other writers.

Some of the most common forms that secondary sources can take are academic journal articles and books, or articles and opinion pieces. They can also be biographies, textbooks, treatises, and more. Tertiary sources, the last of the three types we'll look at, are compilations or syntheses of research, data, or other information. These sources can be useful for finding straight facts as well as for giving a broad overview of a field or topic. But because the tertiary sources are not primary, nor are they based on original research, they are generally considered less valuable and interesting than primary or secondary sources of information. They can, however, be a good place to start researching a topic, as often, they will lead researchers to the secondary and primary sources the tertiary sources have compiled or synthesized.

These sources are most commonly found as dictionaries and encyclopedias, including online wikis such as Wikipedia. The can also be handbooks, tables, and literature reviews that summarize a collection of related secondary sources. It's important for student writers to keep in mind that some classes, professors, and assignments will not allow tertiary sources such as Wikipedia to be cited as sources for research. Still, these sources can be useful for preliminary or introductory research-- that is, research that leads the writer deeper into the topic and closer to the source material.

Now we're going to look at some examples of these three kinds of sources so we can see how they relate to each other. For the first example, let's look at the subject of art. A primary source within this field could be the painter Gustav Klimt's Tree of Life. This is a piece of art that a writer could analyze. And there are, of course, secondary sources that we could use instead-- for example, a book on Gustav Klimt's career as an artist with its own analysis of the source material. And for tertiary source, how about an encyclopedia entry on Austrian painters, Klimt included? This would most likely contain some basic information about our primary source, one of his more famous paintings. But alone, the encyclopedia wouldn't be enough for a writer or researcher.

And for a different kind of source, consider a mathematical theorem about fluid dynamics. This could be written about, analyzed, and argued over directly, and there are definitely secondary sources as well, like a scholarly peer-reviewed article about the theory's relevance to modern engineering, or something like that. And a tertiary source containing material on a primary subject could be an introductory physics book, which again would basic information, but only enough to introduce a researcher to the topic, not sufficient for citation.

In the humanities, primary sources abound. How about the autobiography of Malcolm X? And a secondary source concerning this text could be another writer's historical book about X, let's say focusing on the education he gave himself while in prison, comparing that to what he received as a child. A tertiary source, meanwhile, could be the Wikipedia page about the civil rights movement, which would no doubt mention Malcolm X and possibly his autobiography.

And in the field of drama, an example of a primary source could be a particular theater's 1998 performances of an adaptation of Samuel Beckett's play Waiting for Godot. A drama critic of the time reviewed the adaptation, let's say, and that published analysis would be a great secondary source for a researcher to use. Another useful source, though useful in a different way, would be a pamphlet put out by the theater chronicling all the performances put on in the '90s, which might even refer to the critic's review if the critic had been famous enough and if the review was positive enough.

So as you can see, all sources, whether primary, secondary, or tertiary, have a place in the research process. As for what that place is exactly, just like with other parts of writing, it all depends on the writer's needs and purpose.

So what did we learn today? We learned about how writers use sources as evidence, covering the three types of sources-- primary, secondary, and tertiary. Then we looked at examples of each.

I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.

Terms to Know
Primary Sources

Documents or objects that are as close to the source topic or event as possible.

Secondary Sources

Expressions of original research related to primary sources.

Tertiary Sources

Compilations or syntheses of research, data, or other information.