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Secondary source

Secondary source

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In scholarship
Scholarly method
Scholarly method or scholarship is the body of principles and practices used by scholars to make their claims about the world as valid and trustworthy as possible, and to make them known to the scholarly public.-Methods:...

, a secondary source is a document
Document
The term document has multiple meanings in ordinary language and in scholarship. WordNet 3.1. lists four meanings :* document, written document, papers...

 or recording
Recording
Recording is the process of capturing data or translating information to a recording format stored on some storage medium, which is often referred to as a record or, if an auditory medium, a recording....

 that relates or discusses information
Information
Information in its most restricted technical sense is a message or collection of messages that consists of an ordered sequence of symbols, or it is the meaning that can be interpreted from such a message or collection of messages. Information can be recorded or transmitted. It can be recorded as...

 originally presented elsewhere. A secondary source contrasts with a primary source
Primary source
Primary source is a term used in a number of disciplines to describe source material that is closest to the person, information, period, or idea being studied....

, which is an original source of the information being discussed; a primary source can be a person with direct knowledge of a situation, or a document created by such a person.

Secondary sources involve generalization, analysis, synthesis, interpretation, or evaluation of the original information. Primary and secondary are relative terms, and some sources may be classified as primary or secondary, depending on how it is used. An even higher level, the tertiary source
Tertiary source
In scholarship, a tertiary source is a term used to describe a work which is chiefly a selection or compilation of other primary and secondary sources. The distinction between a secondary and tertiary source is relative, whereas the difference between primary and secondary sources is more absolute...

, such as an encyclopedia or dictionary, resembles a secondary source in that it contains analysis, but attempts to provide a broad introductory overview of a topic.

Classification


Many sources can be considered either primary or secondary, depending on the context in which they are used. Moreover, the distinction between primary and secondary sources is subjective and contextual, so that precise definitions are difficult to make. For example, if a historical text discusses old documents to derive a new historical conclusion, it is considered to be a primary source for the new conclusion, but a secondary source of information found in the old documents. Other examples in which a source can be both primary and secondary include an obituary
Obituary
An obituary is a news article that reports the recent death of a person, typically along with an account of the person's life and information about the upcoming funeral. In large cities and larger newspapers, obituaries are written only for people considered significant...

 or a survey of several volumes of a journal counting the frequency of articles on a certain topic.

Whether a source is regarded as primary or secondary in a given context may change, depending upon the present state of knowledge within the field. For example, if a document refers to the contents of a previous but undiscovered letter, that document may be considered "primary", since it is the closest known thing to an original source, but if the letter is later found, it may then be considered "secondary".

Attempts to map or model scientific and scholarly communication need the concepts of primary, secondary and further "levels". One such model is the UNISIST model
UNISIST model
The UNISIST model of information dissemination was proposed in 1971 by the United Nations. UNISIST is a model of the social system of communication, which consists of knowledge producers, intermediaries, and users. These groups of people are different kinds of professionals...

 of information dissemination. Within such a model these concepts are defined in relation to each other, and the acceptance of this way of defining the concepts are connected to the acceptance of the model.

Some other modern language
Modern language
A modern language is any human language that is currently in use. The term is used in language education to distinguish between languages which are used for day-to-day communication and dead classical languages such as Latin, Attic Greek, Sanskrit, and Classical Chinese, which are studied for...

s use more than one word for the English word "source". German
German language
German is a West Germanic language, related to and classified alongside English and Dutch. With an estimated 90 – 98 million native speakers, German is one of the world's major languages and is the most widely-spoken first language in the European Union....

 usually uses Sekundärliteratur ("secondary literature") for secondary sources for historical facts, leaving Sekundärquelle ("secondary source") to historiography
Historiography
Historiography refers either to the study of the history and methodology of history as a discipline, or to a body of historical work on a specialized topic...

. A Sekundärquelle is a source which can tell about a lost Primärquelle ("primary source"), such as a letter quoting from minutes which are no longer known to exist, so cannot be consulted by the historian.

In science and medicine


In the sciences, a review article
Review journal
A review journal in academic publishing is a periodical or series that is devoted to the publication of review articles that summarize the progress in some particular area or topic during a preceding period.-Types:Review journals can be divided by...

 or meta-analysis
Meta-analysis
In statistics, a meta-analysis combines the results of several studies that address a set of related research hypotheses. In its simplest form, this is normally by identification of a common measure of effect size, for which a weighted average might be the output of a meta-analyses. Here the...

 are both examples of a secondary source. However a book review
Book review
A book review is a form of literary criticism in which a book is analyzed based on content, style, and merit. A book review could be a primary source opinion piece, summary review or scholarly review. It is often carried out in periodicals, as school work, or on the internet. Reviews are also often...

 that contains the personal opinion of the reviewer about the book will not be a secondary source for that opinion. A summary of the book within a review is a secondary source. Some academic journals only publish reviews. Unlike in the humanities
Humanities
The humanities are academic disciplines that study the human condition, using methods that are primarily analytical, critical, or speculative, as distinguished from the mainly empirical approaches of the natural sciences....

, scientific and medical peer review
Medical peer review
Medical peer review is the process by which a committee of physicians examines the work of a peer and determines whether the physician under review has met accepted standards of care in rendering medical services. Depending on the specific institution, a medical peer review may be initiated at the...

ed sources are not generally considered secondary unless they are a review or a meta-analysis. Some scientific document search engine
Search engine
A search engine is an information retrieval system designed to help find information stored on a computer system. The search results are usually presented in a list and are commonly called hits. Search engines help to minimize the time required to find information and the amount of information...

s, such as PubMed
PubMed
PubMed is a free database accessing primarily the MEDLINE database of references and abstracts on life sciences and biomedical topics. The United States National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health maintains the database as part of the Entrez information retrieval system...

, allow users to limit their searches to reviews and meta-analyses. Secondary sources can help trace the history of scientific and mathematical ideas, including who is credited as the original source of the idea.

A survey of previous work in the field in a primary peer-reviewed source is secondary. This vastly increases the amount of secondary source information available when there are few reviews in a field.

Library and information science


In library and information science
Library and information science
Library and information science is a merging of the two fields library science and information science...

s, secondary sources are generally regarded as those sources that summarize or add commentary to primary sources in the context of the particular information or idea under study.

Mathematics


An important use of secondary sources in the field of mathematics
Mathematics
Mathematics is the study of quantity, space, structure, and change. Mathematicians seek out patterns and formulate new conjectures. Mathematicians resolve the truth or falsity of conjectures by mathematical proofs, which are arguments sufficient to convince other mathematicians of their validity...

 has been to make difficult mathematical ideas and proofs from primary sources more accessible to the public; in other sciences tertiary source
Tertiary source
In scholarship, a tertiary source is a term used to describe a work which is chiefly a selection or compilation of other primary and secondary sources. The distinction between a secondary and tertiary source is relative, whereas the difference between primary and secondary sources is more absolute...

s are expected to fulfill the introductory role.

In humanities and history


Primary sources are those closest to an event, such as diaries and first-hand newspaper and magazine accounts. In the humanities
Humanities
The humanities are academic disciplines that study the human condition, using methods that are primarily analytical, critical, or speculative, as distinguished from the mainly empirical approaches of the natural sciences....

, unlike the science
Science
Science is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe...

s and medicine
Medicine
Medicine is the science and art of healing. It encompasses a variety of health care practices evolved to maintain and restore health by the prevention and treatment of illness....

, secondary sources in history and humanities are usually newspaper, magazine, academic journal
Academic journal
An academic journal is a peer-reviewed periodical in which scholarship relating to a particular academic discipline is published. Academic journals serve as forums for the introduction and presentation for scrutiny of new research, and the critique of existing research...

, or other written accounts from the perspective of a different person than the person who experienced the event. In the humanities, a peer review
Peer review
Peer review is a process of self-regulation by a profession or a process of evaluation involving qualified individuals within the relevant field. Peer review methods are employed to maintain standards, improve performance and provide credibility...

ed article is always a secondary source, but isn't necessarily secondary in the sciences.

Medicine
Medicine
Medicine is the science and art of healing. It encompasses a variety of health care practices evolved to maintain and restore health by the prevention and treatment of illness....

 presents a special case because it is one of the few sciences which is also a humanity; linguistics
Linguistics
Linguistics is the scientific study of human language. Linguistics can be broadly broken into three categories or subfields of study: language form, language meaning, and language in context....

 is another example.

The delineation of sources as primary and secondary first arose in the field of historiography
Historiography
Historiography refers either to the study of the history and methodology of history as a discipline, or to a body of historical work on a specialized topic...

, as historians attempted to identify and classify the sources of historical writing. In scholarly writing, an important objective of classifying sources is to determine the independence and reliability of sources. In contexts such as scholarly historical writing, it is almost always advisable for historians to use primary sources if possible, and that "if none are available, it is only with great caution that [the author] may proceed to make use of secondary sources."

As a general rule, modern historians prefer to go back to primary sources, if available, as well as seeking new ones, because primary sources, whether accurate or not, offer new input into historical questions, and most modern history revolves around heavy use of archive
Archive
An archive is a collection of historical records, or the physical place they are located. Archives contain primary source documents that have accumulated over the course of an individual or organization's lifetime, and are kept to show the function of an organization...

s for the purpose of finding useful primary sources. On the other hand, most undergraduate research projects are limited to secondary source material.

Law


In the legal field, source classification is important because the persuasiveness of a source usually depends upon its history. Primary sources may include cases, constitutions, statutes, administrative regulations, and other sources of binding legal authority, while secondary legal sources may include books, articles, and encyclopedias. Legal writers usually prefer to cite primary sources because only primary sources are authoritative and precedent
Precedent
In common law legal systems, a precedent or authority is a principle or rule established in a legal case that a court or other judicial body may apply when deciding subsequent cases with similar issues or facts...

ial, while secondary sources are only persuasive at best.

Family history


"A secondary source is a record or statement of an event or circumstance made by a non-eyewitness or by someone not closely connected with the event or circumstances, recorded or stated verbally either at or sometime after the event, or by an eye-witness at a time after the event when the fallibility of memory is an important factor." Consequently, according to this definition, a first hand account written long after the event "when the fallibility of memory is an important factor" is a secondary source, even though it may be the first published description of that event.

Autobiographies


An autobiography can be a secondary source in history or the humanities when used for information about topics other than its subject. For example, many first hand accounts of events in World War I
World War I
World War I , which was predominantly called the World War or the Great War from its occurrence until 1939, and the First World War or World War I thereafter, was a major war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918...

written in the post-war years were influenced by the then prevailing perception of the war which was significantly different from contemporary opinion.

Further reading

  • Jules R. Benjamin, A Student's Guide to History (2003)
  • Edward H. Carr, What is History? (New York: Vintage Books, 1961).
  • Wood Gray, Historian's handbook, a key to the study and writing of history (Houghton Mifflin, 1964).
  • Derek Harland, A Basic Course in Genealogy: Volume two, Research Procedure and Evaluation of Evidence, (Bookcraft Inc, 1958)
  • Richard Holmes, Tommy (HarperCollins, 2004)
  • Martha C. Howell and Walter Prevenier, From Reliable Sources: An Introduction to Historical Methods (2001)
  • Richard A. Marius and Melvin E. Page, A Short Guide to Writing About History (5th Edition) (2004)
  • Hayden White, Metahistory: the historical imagination in nineteenth-century Europe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973)

External links