Primary and Secondary Sources in Research and Examples

Primary and Secondary sources: Researchers conduct researches to validate a phenomenon that they have observed, and this helps develop theories, provide factual evidence and expand human knowledge. Research exists and is conducted across all domains, and as each field is different from the other, there is no singular structure that is cemented. It is up to the scholar to decide which method will be the most appropriate and fruitful to the subject that they are studying. Nonetheless, there are pros and cons to these methods, and they should be discussed.

The research process more or less follows a similar pattern across all fields- it starts with the exploration stage, then to the research design, and finally the research execution. During the research design stage, the researcher explicitly describes how the research will pan out, and it is here the use of primary and secondary sources come to play.

Primary and Secondary Sources: Differences

Primary sources are sources that provide first-hand information and can be in a written format such as speeches, autobiographies, letters and so on, or in a non-written form such as music, documentaries, videos, etc. Secondary sources on the other hand describe or summarise an event, discussion or concept which was originally found in another source. They interpret, analyse and comment upon these primary sources. Examples of secondary sources include bibliographies, commentaries, literature reviews, textbooks and articles. As the kind of information presented in the two differ, it is essential to choose the source wisely.

Primary sources

Interviews, surveys and fieldwork

Interviews are a tool that is often used in the academic sphere, especially when concerning the social sciences because it is an excellent method to derive rich, first-hand data. An interview can be done with a single individual or a group of people and has various guidelines and structures. It can be conducted as a closed-ended interview wherein the participant is given a set of answers from which they must answer or an open-ended one. They have more free space to navigate their thoughts to formulate a detailed answer. Interviews can either be structured, semi-structured or unstructured. Structured interviews follow a pre-planned set of questions and do not stray away from the topic whereas unstructured is the exact opposite- the interviewer and interviewee essentially have a discourse, and the participant is free to talk about whatever they feel is relevant to the topic. Most researchers usually pick semi-structured interviews as it is a combination of both. Researchers may edit their questions based on the participants’ responses and may probe them to give further explanations.

Surveys are a method used by researchers to collect data through a standardized measure. It is a tool that is often used in the social sciences because of how quick and effective it is. Surveys can be found in multiple types: online surveys, traditional postal surveys, telephonic surveys, and closed-ended structured interviews. Field research is, as the name suggests, research that takes place in the field. The researchers examine the concept, group or idea that they are studying in the real world and collect data. These prove to be very informational and provide rich qualitative information. Field research can be conducted as interviews, observations, field experiments, and so on.

Dairies, personal letters and other forms of correspondence

            Researchers often use content extracted from personal diaries and letters as evidence when wanting to study something tied to the past. They are used as a means to collect qualitative data. When studying historical events, sometimes it is difficult to collect reliable data as the content is dependent on the participants’ memory, however, these sources may provide a more accurate representation. Moreover, when conducting experiments using diaries can help participants track what is relevant to the research so that the narration is more accurate. As letters are written records of communication between two people, they can be used as a first-hand source. Letters during the wars were used as sources of information for research.

Experiments and observations

            Experiments and observations are a very common research tool incorporated in the social sciences, it allows researchers to control the variables related to the concept that they are studying. Experiments have been used in research since the very beginning and are a good source of collecting data first-hand as the researcher records data in real time. Observations similarly are a good example of primary data. Experiments can be conducted as a lab experiment wherein all the variables are controlled, and the subject is studied in an artificial environment, or as a field experiment where the subject is studied in their natural environment.

Secondary sources

Books, podcasts, and videos

Books are one of the oldest methods through which information was sourced, it provides us with a great deal of information and is an easy way to derive factual data. Books can be textbooks, compilations, published research and historical events. Based on the research being conducted, fictional and non-fictional books may also be used as a source of data. These sources give rich qualitative material which, when chosen correctly, can be used as an authentic and valid source of information. Podcasts are considered as an alternative to radio stations, educational podcasts are on the rise and a lot of people use this as a source to gain information as they require proper planning and structuring. The information from such podcasts can be verified then used in research. Similarly, videos are another example of secondary information, these videos can be of any form and genre. Scholars incorporate films, documentaries and other educational videos as official sources but it is also common to use non-academic video sources as well.

Journal articles

Articles published by other researchers are a useful source, and as there are particular guidelines that one must follow in order to publish an article or journal, they can be relied upon. Meta-analysis is an example of studies that rely upon other journal articles as the whole point is to conduct a meta-analysis on all the available data. This is especially useful when wanting to understand a new drug, for example, as all the information related to it is compiled in one place. Oftentimes it is not entirely possible to conduct first-hand research and so researchers rely on the findings of previous studies to formulate their conclusions. Articles are also easily accessible and less time consuming.

Newspapers, websites and blogs

Although a lot of information present in newspapers these days are subject to bias, there are certain reliable sources from which researchers can take their information. Newspapers are not used as the sole source of information like journal articles and books but are pleasantly useful to researchers. Websites such as government websites and official sites are used as sources to gather information from. When researching about music charts, for example, a reliable source would be the billboard website. As general websites do not have regulations on the spreading of information, researchers have to be slightly careful, the same applies to blogs. Blogs are a good source to derive personal narratives and opinions, although the researcher must keep in mind the subjective nature of the medium.

Also Read: How to Publish Your First Journal Article and Get it Published


Both primary and secondary sources are incredibly important when it comes to data collection and oftentimes researchers and scholars include a mix of both in their study to have a more reliable and valid paper. For example, literature reviews consist of secondary sources, researchers compile already existing data and critically comment on it to address how it is relevant to their study. Especially in the social sciences as subjectivity is an inherent consequence including both primary and secondary data will help to strengthen the richness of the data present. Though it is not often, there are instances where researchers only choose one method of data collection- they either rely on primary or secondary sources for their research. Scholars must take into account what exactly they are studying and choose methods that are the most appropriate.

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Prathyusha Madhu is a student at FLAME University, currently pursuing Psychology and Sociology. Her interests lie in poetry and music.