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How to do Research

Research is a process of inquiry: Asking questions, following the answers

Primary and Secondary Sources

Information sources are often referred to as "primary" and "secondary" sources.  But what does that mean?

A primary source is any source of information that provides immediate, first-hand information about a topic, an event, etc. that is written or created by the people or person who experienced it.  A secondary source interprets or analyzes information from primary sources.  However, there are some differences between academic disciplines in what is considered to be primary source material.  The Lafayette College Library describes those differences in this way:

  • In the humanities, a primary source could be defined as something that was created either during the time period being studied or afterward by individuals reflecting on their involvement in the events of that time.
  • In the social sciences, the definition of a primary source would be expanded to include numerical data that has been gathered to analyze relationships between people, events, and their environment.
  • In the natural sciences, a primary source could be defined as a report of original findings or ideas. These sources often appear in the form of research articles with sections on methods and results.

So for a paper in a field like psychology, environmental science, or biology, a peer-reviewed journal article by a scientist describing an experiment he conducted and its results would be considered primary source material. 

For a history paper, primary sources would include things such as census reports, letters, and speeches by individuals who lived during a certain period.  For a paper in a literature course, primary sources might include a review of a work that was published when it was first printed, or a letter from the author to another person discussing his/her ideas that might be relevant to the themes of the work.

Finding Primary Sources

The following tutorials may help you identify primary sources:

Additional Information on Primary Sources: