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Types of Sources Tutorial

Learn about the benefits and negatives of using various source types for your research.

Types of Sources (Primary, Secondary, Tertiary)

Sources come in a wide variety of formats: books, articles, movies (documentaries), websites (including blogs), social media, etc. The format of a source does not indicate whether it is a good source to use for your research. Understanding what type of source you are using can help determine how something could be used as you do your research.


Secondary Tertiary

Original material

Analyzes or interprets a primary source.

Summarizes or provides background information from primary and secondary sources. Does not provide new information or analysis.

This could be original research or data from a study, interviews, diaries, news footage or articles created at the time an event happened.

This could be reviews, literary criticisms, and many articles.

This is often reference works like encyclopedias, dictionaries, almanacs, and bibliographies.

If you are writing an essay on a particular poem, the poem itself is a primary source.  An article analyzing the poem is a secondary source, and a tertiary source could be an encyclopedia entry about the poet.

Amanda Gorman the hill we climb book cover          The Hill We Climb analysis headlines         

The type of source can change depending on how it is being used. Using our poetry example, if you are writing not about the poem itself, but about reaction to the poem, articles analyzing the poem could become primary sources.headlines following performance of the hill we climb at 2021 presidential inauguration

For another example, lets say you are writing about a particular policy. The policy itself is your primary source. Articles about the policy would be secondary sources. If you were writing about reactions to the policy though, those articles would become primary sources.

Tweets are another source that can be primary or secondary. Often they are discussing an event or reacting to something someone else tweeted, this makes them a secondary source. However, they are also happening at a particular point in time, within the context of an event which can make them a primary source. This does not mean they are a good source. You still need to evaluate if this is a good source for the information you are looking for.

When starting your research it is a good idea to start with tertiary sources, especially if you are unfamiliar with the topic. Tertiary sources can provide background on your topic and can help refine your research -- either narrowing or broadening the areas to look into, or help you find the keywords you'll use as you search.

Types of Articles (Scholarly, Trade, Popular)

Articles can also come in different varieties. Articles can appear in: Scholarly or peer-reviewed journals, trade or professional publications, newspapers and magazines. Determining the type of article you are looking at can help determine if you should be using it in your research.

Often aexamples of types of sources quick flip through the publication can indicate the type of publication. Bright colors, and lots of advertisements indicate a popular magazine written for a general audience by a person who is not an expert in the field. Scholarly journals on the other hand tend to not to be very eye catching, but are written by experts in the field.Trade journals will fall in between with a few ads (usually in relation to the profession), but not as much color or images as a magazine. To really determine what kind of source you have you need to look at the content. As you read an article think about who is writing the article and putting it out.

A popular magazine may give you an idea for your topic, but as you continue your research you should be utilizing more scholarly and professional sources to cite in your final paper.

Criteria Scholarly/Peer-reviewed Trade/Professional Popular Magazine
Person who wrote the article and the publishing body Written by an expert or scholar in the field. Published by a professional group or organization, or an academic institution. If reviewed before publication by others with similar expertise, it is considered peer-reviewed. Written by a journalist or free-lance writer with expertise on the topic. Often published by professional organizations (but may partner with a commercial publisher or university press). Usually a free-lance writer, staff writer, or does not have a specific author, with no expertise on the subject. Published by a for-profit, commercial entity.
Audience the article is written for Written assuming the reader has a scholarly background in the field and is familiar with concepts and the specialized language of the field. Written for people educated in the field but not necessarily on the specific subject being written about. Professional jargon or specialized vocabulary often used. Written for any audience. No background or specialized knowledge needed.
Purpose of the article Shares original research, techniques, or topics of importance relevant to a specific field or area of study. Reports on news and happenings in the field (such as upcoming professional development opportunities). Also reports on research, often framing the research in a practical or applied manner. Often to entertain the reader or sell something (which may be the magazine itself).
Exterior Appearance Few images other than images or charts relevant to the article, little or no advertising, not a lot of color Usually glossy or newspaper-like pages, contains illustrations and images, some advertising Glossy, many photographs and images, a lot of advertising
References included Citations are required, with footnotes or endnotes, in-text citations, and long bibliographies, all formatted according to a particular style manual Sometimes have references or bibliographies but reference lists are rarely as long as you'll see in scholarly sources. Rarely have references


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