1.4 Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Sources

Types of Scholarly Sources

Now that we know the difference between scholarly and non scholarly sources, it is important to know the different types of scholarly sources.

Scholarly sources can be primary, secondary or tertiary sources.


Primary Sources

Primary sources present original findings or research. Authors describe their research and their conclusions

– Journal articles describing original research

– Theses and dissertations




Secondary Sources

Secondary sources analyze, summarize or synthesize original research. They comment on information presented in primary sources

– Review articles (often have review in the title)

– Books (including textbooks)



Note: Biotech companies often have review articles on their websites. Though they are designed to sell products, they can contain useful information and figures. This type of review article is also considered to be grey literature (see end of page for more information).


Tertiary Sources

Tertiary sources index, abstract, organize, compile, or digest other sources

– Dictionaries and encyclopedias

– Handbooks and guidebooks





What Source Should You Use?

It is important to know when to use each type of scholarly source:

Primary Sources – Use primary sources to provide credible evidence for your arguments and to back up specific claims. As primary sources provide authoritative, first-hand research information, they are important to use in your work.

Secondary Sources – Use secondary sources to gain an overview of your topic. As secondary resources summarize or synthesize a number of primary resources, they are useful to understand the various aspects of your research topic.

Tertiary Sources – Tertiary sources are used to provide technical information or general background information. Refer to tertiary sources when need definitions or basic information about a topic.


What About Grey Literature?

Grey literature is research that is either unpublished or not commercially published. Grey literature can be published by governments, NGO’s, industry and academic institutions.

Even though grey literature can present original research, it is not peer-reviewed. Though it is not peer-reviewed, grey literature can still have useful, reliable information.

Examples of grey literature include:

  • Government publications
  • Maps
  • Conference proceedings
  • Theses and dissertations
  • Research reports
  • Newsletters and bulletins

Note: academic materials like theses, dissertations and conference proceedings are both primary literature and grey literature as they present original research, but do not go through the peer-review process.




Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Library Skills for 2nd Year Biological Sciences Copyright © 2020 by Lauren Stieglitz is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book