Chapter 1: Getting started with research

1.5 Primary and secondary sources

A factor you may not have considered when starting your research is time. It’s important to know when something happened because that can help you determine both how much and what type of information might exist on your topic. The closer you are to the actual date something happened, the less information there is likely to be on that topic. By the same token, the further away you are from the event in time, the more likely it is that more information and publications may be available. This concept is called the flow of information.

In general, you can expect to find information on the internet, television, and newspapers in the first few days after a newsworthy event. As weeks go by, other information sources begin to emerge, adding new perspectives and information on the topic. Articles in magazines such as Newsweek or People appear next. Over time, other publications that take longer to produce may emerge like scholarly research articles and books.

Understanding when an event happened will help you figure out how much and what kinds of information are available on a given topic. It can also give you insight into whether primary or secondary sources are available on the topic. Depending on your research needs, using one or the other may strengthen your project. If you’re researching a current event, you will likely rely heavily on primary sources such as newspapers. If your teacher requires you to use only peer-reviewed journal articles, you’ll need to choose a topic that is not as recent so that there has been time for articles to undergo peer review and be published on your topic.

Primary sources

The first information available about a particular event usually attempts to describe or report it on the same day or very soon after it happens. These types of sources are often called primary sources because they are the first accounts and often provide eye-witness perspectives. Common types of primary sources include web and newspaper articles from the time of the event, diaries, news transcripts, photographs, and videos. These resources are particularly useful when your research could benefit from the perspectives of a given time period, not influenced by shifts in public thought over time.

Primary sources can also refer to publications describing scientific exploration when they are written by the people who did the research. In the sciences, “the purpose of reading the primary source is to get the original data, not someone else’s interpretation of the data (a secondary source).”[1]

Secondary sources

Secondary sources analyze an event or previous research after the fact, often putting an event into historical context or comparing it with other resources, issues, trends, or movements. Secondary sources analyze the original event in more depth and context. Common types of secondary sources include books, research articles, and encyclopedia articles. Some disciplines may define secondary sources mostly as books and encyclopedia articles.

Projects you work on may need to tap into many of these types of sources, and some sources may fall into more than one category. For example, a scholarly journal article may fall into the category of either a primary or secondary source, but a book with background information is likely to be a secondary source. Although each of these might be useful for your research, the sources you choose will have to conform to your instructor’s expectations and the requirements for your project.

Now that you have a grasp on the different types and formats of materials you might want to use in your research and why, let’s delve into how you can develop and refine your research topic.


  1. Mount Allison University. (n.d.). Chemistry and Biochemistry subject guide: Articles. Retrieved June 2, 2021 from https://libraryguides.mta.ca/chem/articles

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Library 160: Introduction to College-Level Research by Iowa State University Library Instruction Services is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.