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All Sources Ere Not Equal:
           Primary, Secondary, & Tertiary Research


communitySecondary resources are probably the most commonly used sources of information we use everyday.  That's what this web document is.

All Research is Not Created Equal  

Secondary research is that which is once-removed from the source.   This sort of research is that which we read when we go online or to a library and get a book or article in which primary research is reported on by the researchers. We aren't doing are own research. Instead, we are relying on that done by reputable (we hope) researchers.

All researchers are not created equal, of course. As you know, the web is absolutely full of junk that purports to be true, breathlessly telling you that little green men really did land at Roswell, New Mexico, that sexy mermaids actually are trying to lure sailors to their graves with their beautiful siren songs, or that President Obama is actually a Moslem who was born in Kenya. The tabloids you find by the checkout counter at the grocery store similarly exploit the credulous and poorly educated. As a university-educated person, you want to be able to find and assess quality research (and researchers). You also need to be able to debunk the lies that assault you every day.

That doesn't mean we need to be information snobs, or that all the research we utilize needs to be difficult or inaccessible for the common person. It may be that you enjoy laughing at silliness such as the headline I've provided above right, which is from a fairly recent checkout counter tabloid. But consider the danger to democracy of having an electorate that ONLY knows about or accesses popular materials, and is credulous enough to believe everything they read.

Remember too that there's editorial bias everywhere. Quickly now: what's the editorial bias of the Lancaster Intelligencer Journal? Fox News? The New York Times? The Washington Times? Don't know? See "Media bias in the United States." All news, print or other media, is not created equal. Everyone has some bias, acknowledged or not. Even academics in the hard sciences don't exist in an intellectual vacuum however disinterested and objective they might try to be. Each of us sees the world as our belief system colors it. But, we can try to be as objective as possible, and we can also try to acknowledge our potential areas of bias and guard against them. Judges do that when they recuse themselves from cases in which they might know one of the parties or have some vested interest in the outcome.

Not all materials on the web are that scrupulous, however. That's why we do not consider a .com, .edu, .org, or .gov site to be created equal. We do not automatically trust a site that is designed to sell us something as having a direct bead on the truth. That would be foolish. Let's take as an example this piece: "Try This to Have a Brilliant Baby (Newborn)" by Dr. Leo L. Leonidas of brilliantbaby.com. Now, this is designed to look just like a periodical article, so what's your first reason to take what it says with a grain of salt? As you can see, it's not an .edu or .gov site; it's a for profit company (.com). Now, this Dr. Leonidas is somebody you don't know, and he's suggesting that you start doing things to your baby. You'd think a parent would have to be a real nut to obey such instructions, but think a moment. Many people without university degrees think the fact that this guy says he's a doctor means that he's trustworthy, knowledgeable, and believable. But, why would you believe that? You have no idea what this guy's expertise is, let alone his ethics and morals. Everything turns up on Google: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Caveat Emptor: Let the buyer beware. You can find everything from academic articles by brilliant, trustworthy men and women to the worst kind of junk. Of course, all of the things you find on the web are not equally trustworthy. That's pretty much a given, so it should not surprise you. It pretty much defines the web. On it, we are awash in data, good, bad, and indifferent. Even when we are not credulous enough to believe everything we read, it takes a fair amount of time and effort to find the good stuff. As a university-educated person, you need to be a savvy, efficient consumer of information.

Publisher/publication bias and authorial training (or lack of it) doesn't necessarily make information wrong...though it may...but it almost certainly does mean that some things are being more strongly stressed, others ignored or less strongly stressed. The moment we choose to write, we are making such choices. The key is to be aware of the issue, both as an author and as a consumer of such materials, and to know how to research effectively in order to get good data.

How to find and judge the good stuff.

There is no perfect solution. In part, that's what a university education in the aggregate will start to do for you, at least in your own field. There are all sorts of information, both high and abysmal in quality, available to you when you use a search engine like Yahoo or Google. You can find academic articles written by Nobel prize winners right along side sites breathlessly telling you that Elvis still lives and can be found playing in the Lizard Lounge right down the street. It's no surprise that the information superhighway requires careful defensive driving at least equal to that needed on the automotive version.

How do you judge information quality? For academic materials, the golden term is 'peer reviewed'. What does that mean? Scholarly (academic) presses are not-for-profit institutions. Because they do not aim to make a profit, they can take extra time and care to ensure that what is published by them is deemed by other highly trained academics in a given field to be carefully done, defensible research that reaches conclusions well within the bounds of the available evidence. To ensure that the articles they publish meet that standard, they require that two or three acknowledged experts (peer reviewers) in a field read and approve any new publication accepted for publication. Typically, the peer reviewers will read the proposed article, and may do one of three things: accept it for publication, reject it, or propose changes and request that the piece be revised and resubmitted. Normally, the individuals who have their work published by an academic journal have no connection to the journal itself, and they certainly receive no remuneration for their publication. At their best, academic journals are designed to operate in the public good.

The fact that there is a profit motive and a sense of personal interest does not in and of itself make a text suspect. For example, the New York Times reporters are held to very high standards of proof, and their work is generally defensible. However, their audience and purpose is different, so their reporters are not (usually) internationally known researchers in their fields, and they do not take the time to research for years before they publish. It's not just that they do not have the time; their purpose as members of the popular press is quite different. Now, consider the Times' sleazier brothers and sisters, publications like the National Enquirer or the Star that you might find sitting by the checkout counter at the grocery store, or a self-interested blog with a strong political bias online. Google would make all those things available to you. It isn't 'Big Brother' designed to protect you from biased information. It provides it all. However, sometimes you want to know that the information is restricted to good, solid, trustworthy peer reviewed materials.

Thankfully, Google has come to your aid. Google Scholar has been created just for the purpose of making ONLY high quality peer reviewed research available. [Warning: if you don't know how to use it, you can end up spending money for the materials it presents to you. Before using it, go to the Jing Tutorial (item 8) on setting up Google Scholar, particularly if you plan to use it off campus.] That does not guarantee that the research will always be good, or that it will stand up over time, but it does eliminate the non-specialists from the game. The downside, of course, is that it's harder to read. That's not deliberate, particularly. It's just that any given field has specific concepts and terms that are necessary in order to really do any in depth research in a field. Whether it's bungee jumping or astrophysics, any field has its own specific, unique concepts, literature, and terminology.

Tertiary research is be even further removed from that primary source. Tertiary research is assembled from works done by others. Web search engines are tertiary by definition as are dictionaries, encyclopedias (including Wikipedia), almanacs, and many of your textbooks, which actually sum up research done by others. So are works like Reader's Digest.

There actually is yet another kind of tertiary research. The federal government and certain professional bodies sometimes publish summaries of important research focused for the needs of particular groups such as parents, teachers, physicians, and so forth. It can even happen that the original scholar writes that summary. Here, for example, is an example of Jay Giedd's work explained for professionals such as teachers, attorneys, and such by the National Institute of Mental Health. If you click on Mental Health topics to the right, you see a list of other such materials. Similarly, here is a summary on "Language and the Brain" done by Stephen Crain, one of several FAQ booklets done under the auspices of the Linguistic Society of America.

Is this making sense? The Farmer's Almanac, The Catholic Encyclopedia, and Wikipedia, the MLA Bibliography, and even Google itself are all tertiary sources and so are many of the textbooks you use. The Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster's Dictionary are tertiary texts as well. That doesn't make them second rate. It just means that they build and/or report upon the secondary sources.

Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Research

I. 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. When Barry Friedman worked through and wrote about documents he found regarding Franklin Roosevelt's 1937 response to the 1803 case Marbury v. Madison, he was doing, and then reporting on, primary research.

Examples include:

  • Artifacts (e.g. coins, plant specimens, fossils, furniture, tools, clothing, all from the time under study);
  • Audio recordings (e.g. radio programs)
  • Diaries;
  • Internet communications on email, listservs;
  • Interviews (e.g., oral histories, telephone, e-mail);
    Journal articles published in peer-reviewed publications;
  • Letters;
  • Newspaper articles written at the time;
  • Original Documents (i.e. birth certificate, will, marriage license, trial transcript, your Aunt Joan's personal web page);
  • Patents;
  • Photographs
  • Proceedings of Meetings, conferences and symposia;
  • Records of organizations, government agencies (e.g. annual report, treaty, constitution, government document);
  • Speeches;
  • 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).

II. 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. When I read the New York Times "Sunday Book Review" on Barry Friedman's The Will of the People yesterday, I was reading secondary research. The author, Emily Bazelon spoke well of the book, and I may go ahead and read it if I get time.

Examples include:

  • Bibliographies (also considered tertiary);
  • Biographical works;
  • Commentaries, criticisms;
  • Histories;
  • Journal articles (depending on the disciple can be primary);
  • Magazine and newspaper articles (this distinction varies by discipline);
  • Monographs, other than fiction and autobiography;
  • Some textbooks (also considered tertiary);

III. Tertiary research consists of information which is a distillation and collection of primary and secondary sources. If you go to a dictionary, for example, you find out how words are used in other works, some primary, some secondary, some perhaps even tertiary. Someone had to go looking for them, and evaluate what's found, so it's still research, but it's not primary or secondary.

  • Just now, I pulled up the Farmer's Almanac for 2010. An almanac is tertiary research, as is an encyclopedia or a dictionary. In general, they make predictions based on past evidence published elsewhere. So, for example, they suggest this (among other things) for smelly feet:

    "Tea. Tannin, which is found in tea, is a drying agent. Boil three or four tea bags in one quart of water for about 10 minutes, and then add enough cold water to make a comfortable soak. Soak the odorous feet for at least 15 minutes. Then rinse with fresh water and pat dry." (Farmer's Almanac)

    In addition, among other things, they suggest this:

    "Kosher salt. For extra-sweaty feet, a solution of 1/2 cup kosher salt (which is coarser than ordinary table salt) in one quart of water will help dry out your feet. Add the salt to the water; soak for at least 10 minutes a time." (Farmer's Almanac)

    Note that they cite no sources, and they don't claim to do the research themselves either. They're gleaning this stuff from somewhere, but publish without comment as to source. Like an encyclopedia or dictionary, they're a big compendium of general stuff about the subject at hand.

  • Wikipedia is tertiary research. When I googled Barry Friedman. I found him listed in Wikipedia. Do you see the difference between that and a book about Barry Friedman? Google explains it this way:

    "Wikipedia does not publish original (emphasis mine) research or original thought. This includes unpublished facts, arguments, speculation, and ideas; and any unpublished analysis or synthesis of published material that serves to advance a position. All material added to articles on Wikipedia must be attributable to a reliable published source, even if not actually attributed in the text. This means that Wikipedia is not the place to publish your own opinions, experiences, arguments, or conclusions.

    "'No original research' is one of three core content policies, along with Neutral point of view and Verifiability. Jointly, these policies determine the type and quality of material that is acceptable in articles. They should not be interpreted in isolation from one another, and editors should therefore familiarize themselves with all three." (Wikipedia: No Original Research")

Tertiary sources include:

    • Almanacs;
    • Bibliographies (can also be considered secondary);
    • Chronologies;
    • Dictionaries and Encyclopedias (can also be considered secondary);
    • Directories;
    • Fact books;
    • Guidebooks;
    • Indexes, abstracts, bibliographies used to locate primary and secondary sources;
    • Manuals;
    • Textbooks (can also be considered secondary).


Art and Architecture Painting by Manet Article critiquing art piece ArtStor database
Chemistry/Life Sciences Einstein's diary Monograph on Einstein's life Dictionary on Theory of Relativity
Engineering/Physical Sciences Patent NTIS database Manual on using invention
Humanities Letters by Martin Luther King Web site on King's writings Encyclopedia on Civil Rights Movement
Social Sciences Notes taken by clinical psychologist Magazine article about the psychological condition Textbook on clinical psychology
Performing Arts Movie filmed in 1942 Biography of the director Guide to the movie


Which of the following sources of information would you say are secondary sources?

      1. A New York Times article discussing what scientists think about global warming.
      2. An article on Saint Patrick in the Catholic Encyclopedia.
      3. A peer-reviewed journal article describing a study of PTSD in crime victims.
      4. A Wikipedia article explaining 'hematoma.'
      5. An interview with your Grandmother, discussing slang she used as a girl.
      6. A word you look up in the Oxford English Dictionary.

If you chose 1 and 3, you're getting it. Each of the others is a report about information and/or conclusions derived from either primary or other secondary sources.

Thus, #5 is a primary source, 1 & 3 are secondary sources, while 2, 4, and 6 are tertiary sources.

Work Cited

"Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources." University of Maryland Libraries. 2001 (2006). Date found: February 16, 2010.

"Should I use or cite Wikipedia." William College Libraries, February 26, 2008. Web.

"Did Smelly Feet Ruin Valentine's Dinner?" Farmer's Almanac. 2010. Date found: February 17, 2010.

"Wikipedia: No Original Research" Wikipedia. February 11, 2010. Date found: February 17, 2010.

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2002; Last edited September 28, 2009

© Dr. Bonnie Duncan
English Department
Millersville University
Millersville, PA 17551

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