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*Research and Writing*

Welcome! This guide will help you develop your research and writing skills by providing foundational knowledge of the iterative research and writing process as well as manageable steps for breaking down and navigating college research projects.

Still Struggling?

Conversing with someone else about your research and writing process can be incredibly helpful.  Contact someone at McKillop Library or the Writing Center using the links below.

Material Type

Categorizing types of material is another way that you can organize information.  A source of information can be primary, secondary, or tertiary  depending on when it was created, its purpose and scope, and (sometimes) what discipline is using it.  

It is essential to understand the differences between primary, secondary, and tertiary sources of information so that you know when to use each type in your research.  Remember, determining what type of material a source is can be challenging as it can vary by academic discipline and use.  The sections below will help you recognize the differences between each type of material and provide you with examples of each.

Primary Sources

image of primary sources

Primary sources provide information in its original or purest form, meaning that the information has not been condensed, filtered, changed, or interpreted.

Many primary sources are created, experienced, or collected simultaneously to the time period or "event" that is being researched.  For example, if you were researching music of the 1980s, a song by a famous 1980s performer like Madonna would be a primary source.  However, some primary sources, like memoirs and interviews, may be published or provided after the time being researched because they are still reflecting firsthand experiences. Madonna could publish a memoir in 2020 that still counted as a primary source for the above scenario if it provided a firsthand account of her experiences in the 1980s. 

Examples of primary source materials vary by discipline.  In the physical and social sciences, primary sources include original research studies and data sets (like census data or survey results) in their raw, unanalyzed form.  In the arts, original artwork, music, movies, and literature are primary sources.  For history, historic speeches, letters, maps, newspapers, physical objects, and government documents are also considered primary sources.

Secondary Sources

image of secondary sources

Secondary sources provide information about a primary source or a set of primary sources.  These sources restate, rearrange, or interpret the original information provided in a primary source.  Secondary sources are often created by experts in the field and address the given subject from a historical or critical perspective. providing discussion or analysis of specific aspects.  

Secondary sources include biographies, research articles (for physical and social sciences, this refers to articles that don't include the authors' original research), monographs (other than autobiographies and memoirs), commentaries, and criticisms. 

Secondary sources may have some overlap with other types of materials.  For example, newspaper articles are primary sources in the field of history but secondary in most other disciplines.  Encyclopedias and textbooks are sometimes considered secondary sources although they are usually identified as tertiary.  Remember, you can always check with a librarian or your professor if you need help identifying the type of source you're using!

Tertiary Sources

image of tertiary sources

Tertiary sources compile, index, or organize information from primary and secondary sources.  These sources rarely contain original material and instead typically offer a broad perspective of a topic without any critique or analysis.  Tertiary sources sometimes include a bibliography, works cited, or reference list that can act as a directory to important primary and secondary sources.

Because tertiary sources often aim to provide a broad overview, they generally rely on groups of authors for content.  Editors then review and organize the material prior to publication.

Some common examples of tertiary sources are encyclopedias, dictionaries, textbooks, bibliographies, and directories.  Wikipedia is an example of an online tertiary source.

Tertiary sources occasionally have some overlap with other materials.  As seen in "Secondary Sources," encyclopedias are sometimes considered secondary sources.  Again, remember that you can always check with a librarian or your professor if you need help identifying the type of source you're using.

A Note About Websites

Just like other formats of information, websites can be primary, secondary, or tertiary sources depending on what information they're providing.  A website that provides interviews with survivors of 9/11 would be a primary source.  A website that used interviews with survivors of 9/11 to piece together a story of that day would be a secondary source.  A website that linked to other interviews, photographs, news reports, and stories from 9/11 would be a tertiary source.  

You might also come across websites that include primary, secondary, and tertiary information.  For example, the types of sources listed in the above paragraph could all be part of just one website.  In instances like this, remember to look at the individual pieces of information as well as the website as a whole when using it for your research.