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Primary and Secondary Sources: Other Considerations

Questions to Ask

Questions to help determine whether you are using a primary or secondary source 

When evaluating primary or secondary sources, the following questions can help you evaluate the nature and value of material:

  • How does the author know these details (names, dates, times)? Was the author present at the event or soon on the scene?
  • Where does this information come from—personal experience, eyewitness accounts, or reports written by others?
  • Are the author's conclusions based on a single piece of evidence, or have many sources been taken into account (e.g., diary entries, along with third-party eyewitness accounts, impressions of contemporaries, newspaper accounts)?

Ultimately, all source materials of whatever type must be evaluated and critically assessed when determining if you want to use it in your paper or project. 

Sometimes a Primary Source is a Secondary Source

When is a Primary Source a Secondary Source?

Whether something is a primary or secondary source often depends upon the topic and its use.

For example, a biology textbook would be considered a secondary source in the field of biology, since it describes and interprets the science and makes no original contribution to the discipline.

On the other hand, if the research topic is science education and the history of textbooks, textbooks could be used a primary sources to look at how they have changed over time.