Evaluating Sources

Source Types

Primary Sources

Criteria Use Primary Sources To Help You…
Understand Gain a contemporary understanding of a subject
Interpret Interpret information YOURSELF (Note: some primary sources can be difficult to understand)
Write Write an essay that requires you to express your original understanding of a subject

Discipline Examples of Primary Sources
Art and Architecture Painting by Manet
Chemistry / Life Sciences Einstein’s Diary
Engineering / Physical Sciences Patent
Humanities Letters by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Social Sciences Notes taken by clinical psychologist
Performing Arts Movie Filmed in 1942

Secondary Sources

Criteria Use Secondary Sources To Help You…
Understand Get background information about or a synopsis of a subject
Interpret Get help from scholars who might be more specialized in a subject (Note: be aware of possible source bias)
Write Write an essay that requires you to report on what others have said about a subject (and perhaps defend YOUR informed opinion)

Discipline Examples of Secondary Sources
Art and Architecture Article critiquing art piece
Chemistry / Life Sciences Monograph on Einstein’s life
Engineering / Physical Sciences NTIS database
Humanities Web site on King’s writings
Social Sciences Magazine article about the psychological condition
Performing Arts Biography of the director

Tertiary Sources

Criteria Use Tertiary Sources To Help You…
Understand Get an overview or summary of a topic. These sources are not usually credited to a particular author.
Interpret These source types are often comprised of both primary and secondary sources, and require less interpretive skills since their main purpose is to index, abstract, organize, compile, or digest other sources.
Write Examples of tertiary sources include encyclopedias, textbooks, and dictionaries. This means you’ll use the information to build foundational knowledge of a topic before finding more academic sources. You will not typically use the information in your writing, but simply to provide clarification on a topic with which you are unfamiliar before diving into more academic sources.

Discipline Examples of Tertiary Sources
Art and Architecture ArtStor database
Chemistry / Life Sciences Dictionary on Theory of Relativity
Engineering / Physical Sciences User’s Manual
Humanities Encylopedia on Civil Rights Movement
Social Sciences Textbook on clinical psychology
Performing Arts Guide to the movie

Source Attribution

Additional Notes

  • Most researchers will benefit from using a combination of primary, secondary and tertiary sources
  • Some materials share features of BOTH primary and secondary sources
    -Ex. The Norton Critical Edition of Moby-Dick by Herman Melville contains an original novel (primary sources) and scholarly essays about that novel (secondary sources)
  • Some materials could be considered primary OR secondary, depending upon the research focus
    -Ex. The article “After 9/11: Goal Disruption, Emotional Support, and Psychological Health in a Lower Exposure Sample,” by MacGeorge et al., a scholarly research study published in 2007
    -Secondary source for a history paper on the significance of 9/11)
    -Primary source for a medical paper on post-traumatic stress reactions to acts of terrorism