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PSYC 01B Engelke: Sources

Introduction to Psychological Research Methods library guide.

Primary v. Secondary Information

For research projects you will be using three basic types of information: Primary, Secondary, or Tertiary.  Your instructor will usually tell you what types of information he or she expects you to use for your research.  What is the difference between the three types?

Primary (Think of this as Firsthand)

Primary information is comprised of original materials that were created first hand. This type of information is from the time period involved and has not been filtered through interpretation.  Examples are:

  • Diaries
  • Interviews (legal proceedings, personal, telephone, email)
  • Letters
  • Original Documents (i.e. birth certificate or a trial transcript)
  • Patents
  • Photographs
  • Proceedings of Meetings, Conferences and Symposia.
  • Survey Research (such as market surveys and public opinion polls)
  • Works of Literature

Secondary (Think of this as Second Hand)

Secondary information is made up of accounts written after the fact with the benefit of hindsight. It is comprised of interpretations and evaluations of primary information. Secondary information is not evidence, but rather commentary on and discussion of evidence.  Examples are:

  • Biographies
  • Books
  • Commentaries
  • Dissertations
  • Indexes, Abstracts, Bibliographies (used to locate primary & secondary sources)
  • Journal Articles


Depending on your assignment, you might need to use a combination of primary and secondary information.  What's the difference?  How can you tell the two apart?  How would you know when to use one rather than the other?  This clip from the UCSD Social Sciences & Humanities Library will help you understand the two.

Primary and Secondary Sources

University of West Florida, John C. Pace Library (3:53)

This video explains the basic difference between primary (ground-level evidence for any discipline) and secondary sources (anything created using primary sources) but also indicates that what constitutes as primary and secondary sources depends on the discipline and how the information is going to be used (for example, an empirical study in the sciences could be a primary source). 

  1. What is a primary source?
  2. What is a secondary source?
  3. Which is better—primary or secondary?

Is Your Article Scholarly?

Unless otherwise instructed by your teacher, you'll probably want to use a variety sources to help you gain a complete understanding of your topic. Types of sources for articles include Popular,Substantive, and Scholarly publications. To use them skillfully you need to be able to identify them and understand their differences. Use this chart from Modesto Jr. College's library to help understand the distinctions between the types of sources for articles.

Popular material is created by journalists, staff writers or freelance writers, and, sometimes, by enthusiasts. This type of information is aimed at the general public. It usually provides a broad overview of topics a general readership will find entertaining. If you use popular material for academic work you'll need to be sure to supplement it with articles from scholarly and substantive sources.

Substantive material is produced by scholars or credentialed journalists and is geared toward an educated audience. It provides credible information of relevance to an educated and concerned public. Substantive information is a great choice for community college students, because it is both credible and accessible.

Scholarly material is produced by scholars/experts whose credentials can be evaluated. Aimed at other scholars, it disseminates specialized and discipline-specific information, often reporting on original research and experimentation. Scholarly information is a great choice for college students, though it can be challenging to read because of its scholarly language. Scholarly sources are often called academic or peer-reviewed.


Clues to Use to Determine If Your Article is Scholarly:

This video clip from The Peabody Library will help you identify scholarly sources so that if your instructor requires you to use only scholarly sources, you'll know what she's talking about.

Research 101: Searching is Strategic

Doing academic research is hard, but there are some ways to make your searching more efficient and productive (Anna Eisen, 3:14)!