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The Research Process: Distinguish Sources

What's the Difference Between Primary and Secondary Sources?

Primary sources provide the raw data you use to support your arguments. Some common types of primary resources include manuscripts, diaries, court cases, maps, data sets, experiment results, news stories, polls, or original research.  One other way to think about primary sources is the author was there.

Secondary sources analyze primary sources, using primary source materials to answer research questions.  Secondary sources may analyze, criticize, interpret or summarize data from primary sources. The most common secondary resources are books, journal articles, or reviews of the literature. 


Primary and secondary sources can vary depending on the discipline.  Here are some examples of both types of sources that relate to dragons in different disciplines:

Area of Study Primary Source Example Secondary Source Example
English Beowulf More About the Fight With the Dragon
Anthropology Pottery Design Depicting a Dragon, Artefact from Peru (search for "pottery dragon" in Credo Reference) Encounters with Dragons: The Stones from Chavin
Biology Dragon's Blood Exerts Cardio-Protection Against Myocardial Injury... Dragon's Blood Secretion and Its Ecological Significance

Primary Source Strategies

There are many types of primary resources, so it is important to define your parameters by:

  • Discipline (e.g. art, history, physics, political science)
  • Format (e.g. book, manuscript, map, photograph)
  • Type of information you need (e.g. numerical data, images, polls, government reports, letters)
  • Date range

Here are some guides with primary source databases:

For other types of primary source materials check the guides in your subject area, or ask for assistance.  You can also look at the Primary and Secondary Sources guide.

Types of Articles

Not all "articles" are the same! They have different purposes and different "architecture".

  • Original article – information based on original research
  • Case reports – usually of a single case
  • Technical notes -  describe a specific technique or procedure
  • Pictorial essay – teaching article with images
  • Review – detailed analysis of recent research on a specific topic
  • Commentary – short article with author’s personal opinions
  • Editorial – often short review or critique of original articles
  • Letter to the Editor – short & on subject of interest to readers

Peh, WCG and NG, KH. (2008) "Basic Structure and Types of Scientific Papers."
Singapore Medical Journal, 48 (7) : 522-525. accessed 4/24/19.