Primary vs. Secondary Sources: The Differences Explained

Primary vs. Secondary Sources

There are many reasons why students should learn to cite their sources when writing any academic paper. First and foremost, it indicates that the writer has done in-depth research when gathering relevant information pertaining to a particular topic. Secondly, it shows that the writer is a responsible scholar since they have given credit to the author and acknowledged their ideas. It also permits the reader to track down all the sources of information that were used to write the research paper.

By citing your sources correctly, you avoid getting caught up with incidents of plagiarism. By definition, plagiarism occurs when an individual borrows another person`s ideas and fails to acknowledge that they have done so. This is also referred to as the theft of intellectual property since the information was used without permission. It is important to note that plagiarism is a serious offense and it may have devastating consequences. In some instances, the student might be expelled from the learning institution while in other cases, they may be penalized and receive a failing grade. The most effective way to avoid plagiarism is by citing all the sources that have been used within the body of your academic paper.

When writing an essay, a research paper, or a custom term paper, unfortunately, the majority of the students do not know how to differentiate between primary and secondary sources. In most cases, this creates a lot of problems when it comes to writing research papers that require them to use different sources. One of the most effective ways of meeting the requirements of writing an academic paper is through taking time to understand the kind of sources that are needed and understanding the difference between the primary and secondary sources.

Primary Sources

A primary source means that it is the original book or article that was created by the author or a group of people. You might be wondering about the different types of primary sources that are available. Most people do not know that even published books such as a novel can be used as a primary source. A painting created by an artist can also be used as a primary source. However, in case it was a photocopy of a painting, it would be considered a secondary source. Other forms of primary sources include speeches, newspaper events, journal articles, court cases, photographs, poems, plays, short films and stories, and letters. For example, one of the speeches by President Obama could be used as a primary source. It is essential to note that primary sources usually consist of first-hand information in regard to something such as interviews, court recordings, diaries, or research studies conducted on different experiments.

Secondary Sources

These are sources that are written using information obtained from other primary sources. These sources often aid in analyzing, interpreting, and discussing information about the primary source. For instance, if a magazine writer wrote about a speech that was given by the President of the United States on September 20th, it would be a secondary source. This is because the information is not original and it is aimed at analyzing the speech. In other words, it is true to state that a secondary source often talks about what is contained in the primary source. Although the information is not original, it analyses the speech that was given.

Secondary sources include specific essays, newspaper articles, reviews, dictionaries, encyclopedias, books, and journal articles. Apparently, it is true to state that the majority of the research papers are usually based on secondary sources since they build on studies or research that have been done by other people. Other types of secondary sources include television shows, videotapes, magazines, CD Rom, books, and other forms of reference materials. The majority of the secondary sources are usually used for completing research papers, or arguing someone else`s main points or thesis in regards to a particular topic. It is essential to note that there are situations where a source can be a secondary source in one journal article and a primary source in a different journal article. It all depends on the kind of relationship existing between the journal article and the writer.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Primary Sources

Primary sources are based on information gathered directly from the first-hand experience. It is information that is gathered for a specific research project. Most common examples of primary data sources include: Interviews, which could be a personal interview, telephone, e-mail; Self-administered surveys and questionnaires; Field observation; Experiments; Life histories; Action research; Case studies; Diary entries, letters, and other correspondence; Eyewitness accounts; Ethnographic research; and Personal narratives.

The most common secondary sources, on the other hand, include; Previous research; Mass media products; Government reports; Official statistics; Letters; Diaries; Web information; Historical data; Encyclopaedias; Monographs; Journal articles; Biography; Research analysis; Dissertations; Works of criticism and interpretation.

Advantages of primary source

Resolves a specific research issue

Undertaking your research permits you to address and resolve issues specific to your own situation. For instance, you might be interested in collecting information pertaining to a specific topic.

There is better accuracy

It is essential to note that primary sources are usually more accurate since they are directly collected for a specific topic or population.

Up-to-date information

Primary research is a great source of the latest information on a specific topic since all the relevant facts have been collected in real time. Unfortunately, in most cases, secondary sources do not contain up-to-date information and hence, they are not so much reliable.

You are the owner of the information

One of the benefits of primary sources is that the information collected by the researcher is shared to other people at will. Therefore, all the gathered information can remain hidden from other competitors.

Disadvantages of primary sources

They are more expensive

In most cases, it is very expensive to gather primary data since the research team has to collect information from scratch, which means they have to adhere to the entire research procedure that may involve research materials, processes, etc.

They are time-consuming

There is no doubt, the entire process of conducting primary research is time-consuming. It is essential to note that the amount of time taken is much more as compared to conducting the secondary research.

They have a lot of limitations

One of the drawbacks of primary sources is that they are limited to a specified place, time, and a number of participants among many other factors. A secondary source should contain information from many different sources for it to offer a lot of information.

Advantages of a secondary source

Secondary sources are easy to access

With the advancement of technology and the introduction of the internet in almost every place, it is currently easy to access information on anything just by the click of a mouse.

Low cost

It is essential to note that most secondary sources are free to access. However, for those that need to be purchased, the costs are low.


A researcher or a student can perform endless research within a short duration. Just with a few Google searches, a person can find what they are searching for.

Generating new understanding and insights

It becomes easier to reanalyze old information and generate new levels of understanding on specific topics.

Any person can collect the data

The good thing about the secondary sources is that they can be used by people who are not familiar with the different types of qualitative and quantitative research methods. Any person can collect secondary information.

Disadvantages of secondary sources

Might not be specific to your needs

The information contained in the secondary source might not be specific to your needs because of the fact that it was collected at a different time or place, or maybe it was intended for a different purpose.

Lack of control over the quality of data

The researcher does not have any control over the quality of information. Since the data is significantly controlled by the data-driven market, there is a high possibility that the information might not be of the required quality.


Since the data contained in the secondary source is collected by a person just like you, the researcher might present the findings to suit his or her interests. In other cases, the researcher might fail to take note of facts and instead write about their opinions and perceptions.

Not timely

Most of the information contained in secondary sources is collected from the past. This means that there is a high possibility that it might be outdated. This means that in some cases, the information presented might not be as effective as it is intended.

Distinguish Between a Primary Source and Secondary Source

There is no doubt that the data collection process plays an essential when it comes to statistical analysis of data. There are different methods for collecting primary and secondary data. To begin with, primary data entails information that is collected for the first time by the researcher, whereas secondary data involves information that has already been collected or published by other people. One of the main differences between primary and secondary data is that primary data is original and factual while secondary data involves the analysis and interpretation of primary data. The second major difference is that whereas the primary data is collected with the primary objective of finding a solution to a particular problem, secondary data, on the other hand, is collected for other different purposes. Primary data is real-time data whereas secondary data relates to the past. Primary data is collected for addressing the problem at hand while secondary data is collected for purposes other than the problem at hand. Although primary data collection is a very involved process, on the other hand, secondary data does not involve a lot of processes.

When to use primary sources

An individual can use primary sources when he or she has all the needed resources such as finance and time. This is because it usually involves a lot of resources since the researcher has to do everything from scratch. The use of primary sources could also be used in situations where information on a particular topic or subject has not been documented or contain scanty information. Finally, primary sources can be used in areas where the researcher would wish to avoid using biased information in their research work.

When to use secondary sources

Secondary sources can be used in situations where the researcher does not have adequate resources to undertake the research from scratch. The entire process of using primary sources is so expensive since it demands a lot of time and financial resources. By using secondary sources, a lot of time and resources will be saved. Secondary sources could also be used in situations where the writer would wish to compare the findings of different researchers. As a result, the researcher would be able to understand the different areas that were covered in a particular topic, and the gaps that exist. In essence, secondary sources are helpful when you are suffering from time constrain.

In conclusion, when undertaking your research, it is essential to take your time and put into consideration all the available data options. This will assist you to ensure that the right kind of data is used to arrive at a feasible solution or conclusion. It is essential to note that both secondary and primary data sources have applications in research and businesses. However, they may differ from one another in terms of the way they are collected, utilized, and thereafter analyzed. One of the major disadvantages of primary sources is that they are very expensive as compared to secondary sources in terms of the way information is collected. Most secondary sources, on the other hand, have issues of authenticity. Therefore, as you write your academic papers, you should take some time to think about whether it would be best to use primary or secondary sources. Ensure that whichever decision you settle on; the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.