Importance Of Primary And Secondary Sources In Academic Essays


When you write academic essays or research papers, you are expected to use external materials, popularly referred to as sources in the academia. A source is any material, such as published books, journal articles, audio clips, videos, manuscripts, unpublished texts, reports, etc. you use to build or back your arguments. Relevant and reliable sources constitute the backbone of any well-written essay, without which your write-up is found lacking in academic vigor.

Classification of sources

Based on how they are used by an author in a write-up, sources are divided into two broad categories - primary sources and secondary sources Essay Writing Guide

What is a primary source?

Primary sources are raw materials you analyze to collect data and answer your research question. A material becomes a primary source when it is treated as firsthand evidence or a direct material that throws light on the topic under discussion. They are original and factual, rather than explanatory or interpretive. In social sciences, especially in history, materials written during or close to the time of an event are considered as primary sources.

  • Example (social sciences): Diaries, interviews, memoirs, manuscripts, journals, other unpublished texts, newspapers, photographs, maps, government records, reports, maps, paintings, eyewitness accounts, etc.
  • Examples (natural sciences): Reports of scientific discoveries, results of clinical trials, firsthand account of scientific proceedings, results of experiments, empirical articles published in per-reviewed journals, etc.

What is a secondary source?

A secondary source is an analysis of raw materials (primary sources) done by experts in the field of study. Such materials analyze and interpret primary sources; they serve as a second-hand account or evidence of an event. In that sense, secondary sources are at least once step removed from the original account, event, or phenomenon. Instead of providing a factual description, they evaluate, interpret, and draw conclusions about primary sources, thereby adding some value to the sources.

  • Example (social sciences): Histories, biographies, literary criticism, published books, journal articles, reviews, etc.
  • Examples (natural sciences): Published articles or books on scientific experiments or research, texts that analyze clinical trials, reviews published on the results of scientific experiments, etc.

Importance of primary and secondary sources

To begin with, you are expected to meet certain standards of research and expectations of the academic community when you write a paper or an essay. Reliable and strong sources help you achieve that goal and ensure that your write-up meets the most basic of requirements. Sources are also important because:

  • They show evidence to your arguments: The claims and arguments you put forward in your essay should be substantiated properly. Primary sources provide you with relevant and strong data to support such claims and arguments.
  • They demonstrate your reading: As a scholar working on a particular topic, you are expected to have a reasonably good understanding of the field. Your sources serve as a strong testimony to your wide and informed reading in the research area you have chosen.
  • They validate your thesis: Primary and secondary sources help you prove that your research questions and thesis are not based merely on opinions, but are backed by existing scholarship.
  • They testify to your research skills: The ability to read, analyze, critique, and integrate materials is an important skill a researcher must possess. A well-written paper that has integrated a wide range of relevant sources speaks volumes of your research skills.
  • They help future researchers: The sources you used in your paper give direction to future researchers in the same field by helping them identify and locate useful and reliable materials.

Are they fixed categories?

In each field of study, there are certain norms regarding what can be considered as a primary or secondary source. However, it is important to note here that primary and secondary materials are not watertight categories. Depending on how an author uses them, a material may become a primary or secondary source. For instance, journal articles typically fall under the category of secondary sources; but some disciplines consider empirical and peer-reviewed journal articles as primary sources as they can provide raw data to scholars, who might then develop new studies based on such published results. This is especially true for disciplines such as economics and psychology.

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