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The Literature Review

Primary and secondary sources, the literature review: primary and secondary sources.


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  • Primary vs secondary sources: The differences explained 

Can something be both a primary and secondary source?

Research for your literature review can be categorised as either primary or secondary in nature. The simplest definition of primary sources is either original information (such as survey data) or a first person account of an event (such as an interview transcript). Whereas secondary sources are any publshed or unpublished works that describe, summarise, analyse, evaluate, interpret or review primary source materials. Secondary sources can incorporate primary sources to support their arguments.

Ideally, good research should use a combination of both primary and secondary sources. For example, if a researcher were to investigate the introduction of a law and the impacts it had on a community, he/she might look at the transcripts of the parliamentary debates as well as the parliamentary commentary and news reporting surrounding the laws at the time. 

Examples of primary and secondary sources

Primary vs secondary sources: The differences explained

Finding primary sources

  • VU Special Collections  - The Special Collections at Victoria University Library are a valuable research resource. The Collections have strong threads of radical literature, particularly Australian Communist literature, much of which is rare or unique. Women and urban planning also feature across the Collections. There are collections that give you a picture of the people who donated them like Ray Verrills, John McLaren, Sir Zelman Cowen, and Ruth & Maurie Crow. Other collections focus on Australia's neighbours – PNG and Timor-Leste.
  • POLICY - Sharing the latest in policy knowledge and evidence, this database supports enhanced learning, collaboration and contribution.
  • Indigenous Australia  -  The Indigenous Australia database represents the collections of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Library.
  • Australian Heritage Bibliography - Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Subset (AHB-ATSIS)  - AHB is a bibliographic database that indexes and abstracts articles from published and unpublished material on Australia's natural and cultural environment. The AHB-ATSIS subset contains records that specifically relate to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.include journal articles, unpublished reports, books, videos and conference proceedings from many different sources around Australia. Emphasis is placed on reports written or commissioned by government and non-government heritage agencies throughout the country.
  • ATSIhealth  - The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Bibliography (ATSIhealth), compiled by Neil Thomson and Natalie Weissofner at the School of Indigenous Australian Studies, Kurongkurl Katitjin, Edith Cowan University, is a bibliographic database that indexes published and unpublished material on Australian Indigenous health. Source documents include theses, unpublished articles, government reports, conference papers, abstracts, book chapters, books, discussion and working papers, and statistical documents. 
  • National Archive of Australia  - The National Archives of Australia holds the memory of our nation and keeps vital Australian Government records safe. 
  • National Library of Australia: Manuscripts  - Manuscripts collection that is wide ranging and provides rich evidence of the lives and activities of Australians who have shaped our society.
  • National Library of Australia: Printed ephemera  - The National Library has been selectively collecting Australian printed ephemera since the early 1960s as a record of Australian life and social customs, popular culture, national events, and issues of national concern.
  • National Library of Australia: Oral history and folklore - The Library’s Oral History and Folklore Collection dates back to the 1950’s and includes a rich and diverse collection of interviews and recordings with Australians from all walks of life.
  • Historic Hansard - Commonwealth of Australia parliamentary debates presented in an easy-to-read format for historians and other lovers of political speech.
  • The Old Bailey Online - A fully searchable edition of the largest body of texts detailing the lives of non-elite people ever published, containing 197,745 criminal trials held at London's central criminal court. 
  • British Library Sounds  - Listen to a selection from the British Library’s extensive collections of unique sound recordings, which come from all over the world and cover the entire range of recorded sound: music, drama and literature, oral history, wildlife and environmental sounds.

Whether or not a source can be considered both primary and  secondary, depends on the context. In some instances, material may act as a secondary source for one research area, and as a primary source for another. For example, Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince , published in 1513, is an important secondary source for any study of the various Renaissance princes in the Medici family; but the same book is also a primary source for the political thought that was characteristic of the sixteenth century because it reflects the attitudes of a person living in the 1500s.

Source: Craver, 1999, as cited in University of South Australia Library. (2021, Oct 6).  Can something be a primary and secondary source?.  University of South Australia Library. https://guides.library.unisa.edu.au/historycultural/sourcetypes

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  • Primary vs. Secondary Sources | Difference & Examples

Primary vs. Secondary Sources | Difference & Examples

Published on June 20, 2018 by Raimo Streefkerk . Revised on May 31, 2023.

When you do research, you have to gather information and evidence from a variety of sources.

Primary sources provide raw information and first-hand evidence. Examples include interview transcripts, statistical data, and works of art. Primary research gives you direct access to the subject of your research.

Secondary sources provide second-hand information and commentary from other researchers. Examples include journal articles, reviews, and academic books . Thus, secondary research describes, interprets, or synthesizes primary sources.

Primary sources are more credible as evidence, but good research uses both primary and secondary sources.

Table of contents

What is a primary source, what is a secondary source, primary and secondary source examples, how to tell if a source is primary or secondary, primary vs secondary sources: which is better, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about primary and secondary sources.

A primary source is anything that gives you direct evidence about the people, events, or phenomena that you are researching. Primary sources will usually be the main objects of your analysis.

If you are researching the past, you cannot directly access it yourself, so you need primary sources that were produced at the time by participants or witnesses (e.g. letters, photographs, newspapers ).

If you are researching something current, your primary sources can either be qualitative or quantitative data that you collect yourself (e.g. through interviews , surveys , experiments ) or sources produced by people directly involved in the topic (e.g. official documents or media texts).

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A secondary source is anything that describes, interprets, evaluates, or analyzes information from primary sources. Common examples include:

  • Books , articles and documentaries that synthesize information on a topic
  • Synopses and descriptions of artistic works
  • Encyclopedias and textbooks that summarize information and ideas
  • Reviews and essays that evaluate or interpret something

When you cite a secondary source, it’s usually not to analyze it directly. Instead, you’ll probably test its arguments against new evidence or use its ideas to help formulate your own.

Examples of sources that can be primary or secondary

A secondary source can become a primary source depending on your research question . If the person, context, or technique that produced the source is the main focus of your research, it becomes a primary source.


If you are researching the causes of World War II, a recent documentary about the war is a secondary source . But if you are researching the filmmaking techniques used in historical documentaries, the documentary is a primary source .

Reviews and essays

If your paper is about the novels of Toni Morrison, a magazine review of one of her novels is a secondary source . But if your paper is about the critical reception of Toni Morrison’s work, the review is a primary source .

Newspaper articles

If your aim is to analyze the government’s economic policy, a newspaper article about a new policy is a secondary source . But if your aim is to analyze media coverage of economic issues, the newspaper article is a primary source .

To determine if something can be used as a primary or secondary source in your research, there are some simple questions you can ask yourself:

  • Does this source come from someone directly involved in the events I’m studying (primary) or from another researcher (secondary)?
  • Am I interested in evaluating the source itself (primary) or only using it for background information (secondary)?
  • Does the source provide original information (primary) or does it comment upon information from other sources (secondary)?

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examples of secondary sources of literature review

Most research uses both primary and secondary sources. They complement each other to help you build a convincing argument. Primary sources are more credible as evidence, but secondary sources show how your work relates to existing research. Tertiary sources are often used in the first, exploratory stage of research.

What do you use primary sources for?

Primary sources are the foundation of original research. They allow you to:

  • Make new discoveries
  • Provide credible evidence for your arguments
  • Give authoritative information about your topic

If you don’t use any primary sources, your research may be considered unoriginal or unreliable.

What do you use secondary sources for?

Secondary sources are good for gaining a full overview of your topic and understanding how other researchers have approached it. They often synthesize a large number of primary sources that would be difficult and time-consuming to gather by yourself. They allow you to:

  • Gain background information on the topic
  • Support or contrast your arguments with other researchers’ ideas
  • Gather information from primary sources that you can’t access directly (e.g. private letters or physical documents located elsewhere)

When you conduct a literature review or meta analysis, you can consult secondary sources to gain a thorough overview of your topic. If you want to mention a paper or study that you find cited in a secondary source, seek out the original source and cite it directly.

Remember that all primary and secondary sources must be cited to avoid plagiarism . You can use Scribbr’s free citation generator to do so!

If you want to know more about ChatGPT, AI tools , citation , and plagiarism , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

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Common examples of primary sources include interview transcripts , photographs, novels, paintings, films, historical documents, and official statistics.

Anything you directly analyze or use as first-hand evidence can be a primary source, including qualitative or quantitative data that you collected yourself.

Common examples of secondary sources include academic books, journal articles , reviews, essays , and textbooks.

Anything that summarizes, evaluates or interprets primary sources can be a secondary source. If a source gives you an overview of background information or presents another researcher’s ideas on your topic, it is probably a secondary source.

To determine if a source is primary or secondary, ask yourself:

  • Was the source created by someone directly involved in the events you’re studying (primary), or by another researcher (secondary)?
  • Does the source provide original information (primary), or does it summarize information from other sources (secondary)?
  • Are you directly analyzing the source itself (primary), or only using it for background information (secondary)?

Some types of source are nearly always primary: works of art and literature, raw statistical data, official documents and records, and personal communications (e.g. letters, interviews ). If you use one of these in your research, it is probably a primary source.

Primary sources are often considered the most credible in terms of providing evidence for your argument, as they give you direct evidence of what you are researching. However, it’s up to you to ensure the information they provide is reliable and accurate.

Always make sure to properly cite your sources to avoid plagiarism .

A fictional movie is usually a primary source. A documentary can be either primary or secondary depending on the context.

If you are directly analyzing some aspect of the movie itself – for example, the cinematography, narrative techniques, or social context – the movie is a primary source.

If you use the movie for background information or analysis about your topic – for example, to learn about a historical event or a scientific discovery – the movie is a secondary source.

Whether it’s primary or secondary, always properly cite the movie in the citation style you are using. Learn how to create an MLA movie citation or an APA movie citation .

Articles in newspapers and magazines can be primary or secondary depending on the focus of your research.

In historical studies, old articles are used as primary sources that give direct evidence about the time period. In social and communication studies, articles are used as primary sources to analyze language and social relations (for example, by conducting content analysis or discourse analysis ).

If you are not analyzing the article itself, but only using it for background information or facts about your topic, then the article is a secondary source.

Cite this Scribbr article

If you want to cite this source, you can copy and paste the citation or click the “Cite this Scribbr article” button to automatically add the citation to our free Citation Generator.

Streefkerk, R. (2023, May 31). Primary vs. Secondary Sources | Difference & Examples. Scribbr. Retrieved August 25, 2023, from https://www.scribbr.com/working-with-sources/primary-and-secondary-sources/

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Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources

Search catalog, what are the differences.

Sources of information or evidence are often categorized as primary, secondary, or tertiary material. These classifications are based on the originality of the material and the proximity of the source or origin. This informs the reader as to whether the author is reporting information that is first hand or is conveying the experiences and opinions of others which is considered second hand. Determining if a source is primary, secondary or tertiary can be tricky. Below you will find a description of the three categories of information and examples to help you make a determination.

Primary Sources

These sources are records of events or evidence as they are first described or actually happened without any interpretation or commentary. It is information that is shown for the first time or original materials on which other research is based.  Primary sources display original thinking, report on new discoveries, or share fresh information.

Secondary Sources

These sources offer an analysis or restatement of primary sources. They often try to describe or explain primary sources. They tend to be works which summarize, interpret, reorganize, or otherwise provide an added value to a primary source.

Tertiary Sources

These are sources that index, abstract, organize, compile, or digest other sources. Some reference materials and textbooks are considered tertiary sources when their chief purpose is to list, summarize or simply repackage ideas or other information. Tertiary sources are usually not credited to a particular author.


Writing A Literature Review: Introduction

  • Introduction
  • Identifying a Research Topic
  • Searching For Resources
  • Writing & Citing
  • Additional Resources

Writing the Literature Review: Step-by-Step Tutorial

What sources can you use?

Literature reviews use a combination of primary and secondary sources -- the purpose of a LR is to document and analyze what has been published on any given topic through time.

The sources are: print, electronic or visual materials necessary for your research.

Sources are classified into primary, secondary and tertiary.

  • Examples of  primary sources : research articles, letters/ correspondence , diaries, memoirs, autobiographies, official reports, patents and designs.
  • Examples of  secondary sources :  academic journal articles  (other than empirical research articles or reports ), conference proceedings, books (monographs or chapters’ books), documentaries.
  • Examples of   tertiary sources : Encyclopedias, dictionaries, handbooks, atlas

Note : A source can be considered a primary source if it was created during a particular time, and it is documenting the "contemporary thinking" of that period. 

What is a Literature Review?

A   literature review  is a comprehensive survey of the scholarly research  (e.g. articles, books, dissertations, conference proceedings) published on a specific topic, providing a description, summary, and critical evaluation of each work.. It is:

  • a  DESCRIPTIVE  account of the focus of, the methods and processes and data sources used in, and the findings of past research projects on a specific topic,
  • a  CRITICAL  analysis of the focus of, the methods and processes and data sources used in, and the findings of past research projects on the topic,
  • a  PRESCRIPTIVE statement about the potential for further exploration and research on the topic.

Why Do a Literature Review?

The purpose of the literature review is to offer an account of how a topic has been researched and written about in the past and should identify and provide commentary on the processes and data sources that were used to reach the findings presented in the past research.

It should also feature analysis of how past research projects have influenced the current understanding of the topic.

Finally, a literature review should offer insight into how the topic can be further explored and researched in the future.

The 4 Steps of the Literature Review Process

The four steps of the literature review process are: 

  • Identifying and defining  a research topic,
  • searching for and analyzing past research on your topic, 
  • Evaluating and determining which literature makes a significant contribution to the understanding of the topic
  • writing the review , discussing the findings, and citing the past research that reported upon.

These four steps are discussed in depth on subsequent pages of this guide.

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  • Last Updated: Mar 23, 2023 3:28 PM
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Library Research Skills for Biologists

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Secondary literature

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How can I use this?

Secondary Sources are useful for both gaining a broad knowledge of a topic area (e.g review papers), and for understanding how certain discoveries or projects were received by the scholarly community. They give you opinions, analysis, and a discussion of impact which you can use to place primary sources in context.

What is secondary literature?

When other writers summarize or review the theories and results of original scientific research, their publications are known as Secondary Literature . These publication types serve to synthesize the findings to date and present the ideas to a wider audience. Examples of secondary literature include:

  • Review articles
  • Edited volumes
  • Books summarizing research in an area
  • Abstracts and Indexes - Tools used to find articles in scholarly journals

Secondary literature is not as current as the primary literature but it is often more descriptive and is useful for finding introductory material.

Insulin: Discussing the experiment and finding papers

References cited.

[1] Grodsky, G.M. 1970. Insulin and the pancreas. Vitamins & Hormones , 28: 37-101.

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  1. What Is the Difference Between a Primary and Secondary Source?

    A primary source refers to documentation or material presented by parties that were directly present or involved in the referred subject, while a secondary source refers to documentation derived from the opinion or views of primary sources.

  2. Facts About Primary and Secondary Data

    A primary source is a first-hand assessment of a topic or event, while a secondary source is an interpretation of the primary data. Secondary information often quotes primary data and adds a fresh interpretation.

  3. What Are the Advantages and Disadvantages of Primary and Secondary Data?

    There are advantages and disadvantages to using both primary and secondary sources of data in business, including the advantage of being able to frame the collection process and the disadvantage of expense.

  4. Primary & Secondary Sources

    Other examples of secondary sources include biographies and critical studies of an author's work. Galvan, J. L. (2013). Writing literature

  5. The Literature Review: Primary and secondary sources

    The simplest definition of primary sources is either original information (such as survey data) or a first person account of an event (such as

  6. Primary vs. Secondary Sources

    Examples include journal articles, reviews, and academic books. Thus, secondary research describes, interprets, or synthesizes primary sources.

  7. Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources

    Textbooks, edited works, books and articles that interpret or review research works, histories, biographies, literary criticism

  8. Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Sources

    Scholarly, professional literature falls under 3 categories, primary, secondary, and tertiary. Published works (also known as a publication) may fall into

  9. Primary and Secondary Resources

    Examples of primary resources include scholarly research articles, books, and diaries. Primary sources such as research articles often do not explain

  10. How To Do Secondary Research or a Literature Review: Introduction

    For example, secondary research may be used to support a proposal to ... the types of sources that are typically included in a lit review.

  11. Types of Literature

    Secondary literature consists of interpretations and evaluations that are derived from or refer to the primary source literature. Examples

  12. Writing A Literature Review: Introduction

    Examples of secondary sources: academic journal articles (other than empirical research articles or reports), conference proceedings, books (

  13. Explore Secondary Sources

    Examples of Secondary Sources: Articles critiquing or reviewing a performance, piece of art, or literature; Critiques of research; Literature reviews

  14. Secondary literature

    What is secondary literature? ... When other writers summarize or review the theories and results of original scientific research, their