What’s Primary?

By Danny Dotson, Mathematical Sciences Librarian & Science Education Specialist

I’m going to make this blog entry an exercise in making the concept of primary, secondary, and tertiary resources more confusing. Bear with me, it’s to make a point that this concept is confusing to students for a reason.

Scenario 1: A diary

Primary right? What if the person is using the diary because of what the person is saying about a relative? It’s second-hand information. So shouldn’t that be secondary? Is the source still primary if the person is using it in a secondary manner?

Scenario 2: A photograph

Primary, right? What if the photo is of a painting? Wouldn’t it be secondary since it’s a derivative from the painting? And what about a painting someone did from a photograph?

Scenario 3: A journal article

Secondary, right? What if the article is entirely theoretical in nature and has no citations? This can sometimes happen (although fairly rare). So is this primary or secondary?

I think this illustrated that the concept of primary/secondary/tertiary sources is quite gray in nature. It seems like trying to apply a definition based on format alone falls flat when the idea is that primary is meant to be “from the horse’s mouth.” If a diary is used for second-hand content, is it really primary? If a journal article is original theoretical work, is it really secondary? And can a work be a mix (a lit review might be secondary, but the bulk of a journal article might be primary)?

Do you think the primary concept is too gray and we should seek to define it by purpose rather than format?

4 thoughts on “What’s Primary?

  1. Awesome examples/questions. Thank you!
    What do you say to faculty members who ask you to talk about secondary and primary sources specifically?
    My approach is usually to talk about purpose and audience, and invite the instructor to add their thoughts and experience as well. Seems to be different for different disciplines.

    • To my knowledge, I’ve never had people ask me this. My departments are overwhelmingly journal article, book, data, etc. oriented. The closest I’ve gotten to this is a big focus on getting at the characteristics of peer review and why it’s so important to the field – i.e. the field sees peer reviewed journal articles as their “gold standard” and want students steered towards those resources (I do go a bit into the lag time and a few other caveats – i.e. it’s not perfect!).

      If an instructor brought up the idea of my going into this, I would likely start a conversation about what THEY mean by primary/secondary and try to use language that fits their purpose. For example, perhaps they see primary/secondary as peer reviewed / not peer reviewed.

  2. I do get asked by various professors to explain primary sources to their students. I discuss the fact that it means different things in different disciplines, and also that a single source can be described as a primary source in one instance and a secondary source in another. In science courses, I have had faculty ask me to explain the difference between primary and secondary because they want the students to find articles that have original research in them. Peer review is part of the exercise, but they also want them to find data in tables or charts to show that they can interpret it, so they don’t want them to use review articles which are also peer reviewed. I agree that the terminology is problematic, but I don’t know that we can change it unilaterally.

    • Good examples, thanks for sharing!

      I started down this path mainly because there seems to be enough use of this terminology as if there’s a standard definition. For example, instructional content is created that uses these terms as if they’re universal. For example, indicating to students Special Collections areas is where you can get primary sources and you should be using those.

      My followup blog gets into these nuances and why they’re a problem for many different reasons.

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