Evaluating Sources: Using the RADAR Framework
Primary, Secondary, & Tertiary Sources; Definitions and Examples (from Robert's guide)
[by Nicholas Hayen]
Scope: As you conduct research, you will consult different sources of information. A professor may request primary, secondary, or tertiary sources. Depending on your subject and field of study, you may want to begin your research by looking at some secondary sources to get a good idea of what primary sources are available and what is being said about them. Then you can move on to looking at the primary sources to make your own interpretations.
Primary sources are original materials. They are from the time period involved and have not been filtered through interpretation or evaluation. Primary sources are original materials on which other research is based. They are usually the first formal appearance of results in physical, print or electronic format. They present original thinking, report a discovery, or share new information.
Note: The definition of a primary source may vary depending upon the discipline or context.
Secondary sources are less easily defined than primary sources. Generally, they are accounts written after the fact with the benefit of hindsight. They are interpretations and evaluations of primary sources. Secondary sources are not evidence, but rather commentary on and discussion of evidence. However, what some define as a secondary source, others define as a tertiary source. Context is everything.
Tertiary sources consist of information which is a distillation and collection of primary and secondary sources.
- Artifacts (e.g. coins, plant specimens, fossils, furniture, tools, clothing, all from the time under study);
- Audio recordings (e.g. radio programs)
- Internet communications on email, listservs;
- Interviews (e.g., oral histories, telephone, e-mail);
- Journal articles published in peer-reviewed publications;
- Newspaper articles written at the time;
- Original Documents (i.e. birth certificate, will, marriage license, trial transcript);
- Proceedings of Meetings, conferences and symposia;
- Records of organizations, government agencies (e.g. annual report, treaty, constitution, government document);
- Survey Research (e.g., market surveys, public opinion polls);
- Video recordings (e.g. television programs);
- Works of art, architecture, literature, and music (e.g., paintings, sculptures, musical scores, buildings, novels, poems).
- Web site.
- Bibliographies (also considered tertiary);
- Biographical works;
- Commentaries, criticisms;
- Dictionaries, Encyclopedias (also considered tertiary);
- Journal articles (depending on the discipline can be primary);
- Magazine and newspaper articles (this distinction varies by discipline);
- Monographs, other than fiction and autobiography;
- Textbooks (also considered tertiary);
- Web site (also considered primary).
- Bibliographies (also considered secondary);
- Dictionaries and Encyclopedias (also considered secondary);
- Fact books;
- Indexes, abstracts, bibliographies used to locate primary and secondary sources;
Primary, Secondary, & Tertiary Sources
Primary & Secondary Source Examples
Examples of Primary and Secondary Sources by Discipline
image creditsKim, Eugene, and Philip K. Hopke. "Source Characterization of Ambient Fine Particles in the Los Angeles Basin." Journal of Environmental Engineering and Science 6.4 (2007): 343-53 ProQuest. Web. 7 Feb. 2014.
image creditsMcQueen, Alexander. Ensemble, Widows of Culloden. autumn/winter 2006-7. Dress of McQueen wool tartan; top of nude silk net appliquéd with black lace; underskirt of cream silk tulle. Courtesy of Alexander McQueen. Photograph. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Web. 7 Feb. 2014.
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