Secondary Source

When writing an essay, you need information from various sources. This includes primary sources (first-person accounts) and secondary sources (second-hand accounts). Secondary sources are important to fully understand a subject. Secondary sources are defined as any sources that provide second-hand explanations of a subject. They synthesize information from primary sources to form these explanations. There are several types of secondary sources, and each can help your writing in a different way. 

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Table of contents

    Secondary Source Definition

    Here's the rundown.

    A secondary source is a source that provides a second-hand explanation or analysis of primary sources.

    Secondary sources come from researchers like you! They synthesize information from primary sources to offer a unique viewpoint.

    To synthesize means to connect different pieces of information like puzzle pieces into one cohesive argument or explanation.

    Differences Between Primary and Secondary Sources in English

    Primary sources are objects that provide first-hand evidence about your subject. They are directly connected to your subject. Primary sources are usually the sources you analyze for an essay. For example, you might explore works of art or newspapers from a historical era.

    The key differences between secondary and primary sources are:

    1. How closely connected they are to the subject
    2. How you use them in your essay

    Ask yourself, "How close is this source to my subject?"

    Primary sources stem directly from the event, experience, or era you are writing about. They are first-person accounts that you can interpret for your essay.

    Secondary Source Secondary Sources vs. Primary Sources StudySmarterFig. 1 - Primary and secondary sources

    Good writing includes both secondary and primary sources. Use the above graphic to imagine how you might use secondary and primary sources in your essay.

    You are writing an essay about the history of the US influenza pandemic. You use newspaper articles and diaries from 1918 to understand what it was like. You draw conclusions about what it was like from these primary sources.

    However, you are not the only person to study this history! You look for secondary sources to see what other people have to say. You find a documentary interviewing people who lived through the Influenza pandemic. You read a journal article that explains how scientists developed a flu vaccine.

    What Are the Different Types of Secondary Sources?

    The three types of secondary sources are explanatory, analytical/interpretive, and argumentative. The key difference between these secondary sources is how you use them.

    Types of Secondary Sources with Examples

    Let's take a look at the different types of secondary sources and how you might use them.

    Type of Secondary SourceDescriptionExamples

    Explanatory Sources

    An explanatory source is a secondary source that explains a topic. It uses primary sources to explain an event, experience, or concept.Explanatory sources attempt to educate. They take a neutral tone rather than a persuasive tone.Use explanatory sources for background information, overviews, and evidence for your arguments.
    • textbooks
    • educational blogs or podcasts
    • educational documentaries
    • lectures

    Analytical/Interpretive Sources

    An analytical/interpretive source extracts meaning from primary sources. It does not just explain an event or experience. It makes sense of it.Analytical/interpretive sources offer different ideas about a topic. They both explain and interpret.Use analytical/interpretive sources to supplement your analysis. Think about how your source's analysis adds to or differs from yours.
    • journal articles
    • nonfiction books or podcasts
    • documentaries that highlight a unique viewpoint
    • news reports
    • TED Talks

    Argumentative Sources

    An argumentative source takes a position on an issue. It focuses on defending and explaining the author's stance.Argumentative sources offer unique perspectives on a subject. They take a persuasive tone.Use argumentative sources to support your arguments. You can also use them to identify counterarguments.
    • opinion pieces from newspapers
    • advice articles in magazines
    • speeches
    • advertisements
    • debates

    Importance of Secondary Sources

    Secondary sources are important for identifying others' ideas, supporting your arguments, and understanding changes to the subject over time. Secondary sources give you a fuller view of the subject.

    Understand What Is Already Known about a Subject

    Secondary sources help you figure out what people already know about a subject. This way, you can identify gaps in knowledge.

    Ask yourself:

    • What is already known on this subject?
    • What answers are out there?
    • What is NOT known about this subject?

    Identify Important Ideas and Opinions on a Subject

    Most subjects have key works that are important to understanding a subject. Secondary sources can help you identify key works. Secondary sources can show you where ideas come from and why they matter.

    Key works are secondary sources that provide foundational knowledge and ideas. Key works are considered the first or most important works on a subject. For example, in "Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex", Kimberlé Crenshaw came up with the concept of intersectionality.1 This is considered a key work on the subject.

    Ask yourself:

    • Who came up with this idea?
    • Who first wrote about this subject?
    • How do key works help me understand my subject better?

    Secondary sources. Keys on a table. StudySmarter.Fig. 2 - Look for the key—key works that is!

    Identify and Address Counterarguments

    Not everyone is likely to agree with you. Secondary sources can help you identify counterarguments and address them. Identifying counterarguments can help you strengthen your argument. They help you anticipate areas where the reader might need more convincing.

    A counterargument is an argument that disagrees with your argument.

    Ask yourself:

    • How do my sources disagree with me?
    • How can I change the minds of readers who share these disagreements?
    • What do these sources get right, and what do they get wrong?

    Reflect on How Ideas Have Changed over Time

    Ideas change over time. As we have learned, some sources show us where ideas come from. But other sources show us how they have evolved. For example, although Kimberlé Crenshaw came up with the idea of intersectionality, others have changed how we use it. Secondary sources can help you understand this evolution.

    Ask yourself:

    • Which newer sources use this idea?
    • How do these sources talk about this subject differently than the key works?
    • How do current sources help me understand the subject better?

    Compare Interpretations of Primary Sources

    Every secondary source provides a unique interpretation of primary sources. It helps to compare these interpretations with each other. For example, two sources might focus on different groups of people dealing with the same problem. Comparing different interpretations can help refine yours.

    Ask yourself:

    • How do these sources compare to each other?
    • How do these sources differ from each other?
    • What can I learn from both of these interpretations?

    Secondary source. Water source. StudySmarter.Fig. 3 - One source might be clearer or less clear than another.

    Find Primary Sources

    Secondary sources can also help you find primary sources. Remember, secondary sources synthesize information from primary sources. They have to cite those sources! Take a look at the primary sources cited in your secondary sources. Do you interpret them the same way?

    Ask yourself:

    • What primary sources are used in this source?
    • Could I also use these primary sources in my essay?
    • Do I interpret primary sources differently than the author of this secondary source? How so?

    Choosing a Secondary Source

    You can choose secondary sources by asking yourself questions about your writing needs. Identify gaps in your knowledge, arguments, and conclusions.

    Questions for Choosing Secondary Sources

    Consider what you need to understand your subject and support your arguments fully. Ask yourself the following questions to figure out what secondary sources you need:

    • What do I still not know about my subject?

    Look for gaps in your essay. Find secondary sources that provide information you do not have.

    • What do I still not understand about my subject?

    Are you struggling with a concept or idea? Find secondary sources that explain things you are struggling to understand.

    • What perspectives have I not yet considered?

    You can't think of everything! Find secondary sources that look at things differently.

    • Who might agree with my arguments?

    Need more support for your arguments? Find secondary sources that offer similar arguments to yours.

    • Who might disagree with my arguments?

    Good writing addresses possible disagreements. Find secondary sources that offer counterarguments.

    Determining the Credibility of Secondary Sources

    Some secondary sources are more helpful than others. Some sources have incorrect information. Others misrepresent the primary sources they cite. When selecting secondary sources, evaluate for credibility.

    Credibility is a source's trustworthiness. It determines how much you can trust a source's information and ideas.

    Unreliable sources can hurt your argument.

    Secondary source. Lie and truth streets. StudySmarter.Fig. 4 - Follow the truth.

    Features of an Unreliable Secondary Source

    Here are just some of the problems you may encounter.

    Provides Incorrect Information

    The source might include a lot of information that is not correct. Double-check some facts to see if your secondary sources use accurate information.

    Uses Incorrect Quotes from Primary Sources

    The source may change words in a quote or cite the wrong primary source when giving a quote. Look up the quotations used in secondary sources to ensure they are correct.

    Misrepresents the Meaning of a Primary Source

    The source might use a correct fact or quote from a primary source. However, they choose to misinterpret what it means to support their argument. Look up facts and quotes that secondary sources use to form their arguments. Make sure their conclusions about these facts match the primary source.

    Fails to cite Primary Sources

    The source may not tell you where they got their information from. Instead, they might pass off ideas from other sources as their own ideas. Do not use it in your essay if you cannot tell where a secondary source got its information from.

    Features of a Credible Secondary Source

    Here's what you want in a secondary source.

    Represents Information Accurately

    Any quotes or facts used should match the primary source they came from. Credible sources quote correctly and represent conclusions responsibly.

    Includes Information that Matches Sources

    Information in the source should match data from other secondary sources. For example, a news report about a current event should include a lot of the same information as other reports on the subject. When secondary sources align with each other, they are more likely to be credible.

    Secondary sources. Pen hovers near the words "I agree." StudySmarter.Fig. 5 - Find sources that agree with one another.

    Has a Recent Publication Date

    You should be able to tell when the source was published. Credible sources include publication dates. Look for sources with recent publication dates when possible.

    Published by a Reputable Author

    Certain publications, like government websites, are known for having high standards of credibility. Look for sources published by organizations that are known to be credible. Peer-reviewed academic journal articles are a good example. These articles undergo extensive checks from experts in the subject to make sure they are credible.

    How to Find a Credible Secondary Source

    There are many ways to determine if a source is credible. Take the following steps to find out if a secondary source is credible:

    • Find the date of publication to make sure it's recent.
    • Find out who wrote it (the author) and who published it (the publisher).
    • Look for citations to see where the source got its information from.
    • Double-check quotes and facts to make sure the source is representing them correctly.

    Check these features on all secondary sources! That way, you know you have the best sources possible.

    Secondary Source - Key Takeaways

    • A secondary source is a source that provides a second-hand explanation or analysis of primary sources.
    • The key differences between secondary and primary sources are how closely connected they are to the subject and how you use them in your essay.
    • Good writing includes both secondary and primary sources
    • Secondary sources are important for identifying others' ideas, supporting your arguments, and understanding changes to the subject over time.
    • Use only credible secondary sources to help readers believe what you have to say.

    1. Kimberlé Crenshaw, 'Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics', University of Chicago Legal Press, 1989.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Secondary Source

    What are not secondary sources?

    Secondary sources are not first-hand accounts or evidence of events and experiences (like primary sources).

    What is a secondary source?

    A secondary source is a source that provides a second-hand explanation or analysis of primary sources. 

    What are examples of secondary sources? 

    Some examples of secondary sources are peer-reviewed journal articles, news reports, and textbooks.

    What are the types of secondary sources?

    The three types of secondary sources are explanatory sources, analytical/interpretive sources, and argumentative sources.

    Is a newspaper a secondary source? 

    A newspaper is a secondary source when you use it for second-hand information on a subject. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    It means to link and combine different aspects of sources and information.

    It has no direct link to the subject.

    It explains a topic.


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