Updated: Feb 3
by J. L.
My last blog explored Three Ways to Strengthen Your Essay Argument, including some basic information on supporting your argument with secondary sources. To build on this article I will explore some of the best ways to seek out relevant primary and secondary sources for your work, including how to tell the difference between the two.
When researching and writing essays you will have to use both primary and secondary sources to validate and reinforce the argument you’re making. These sources will not only be essential in writing a good essay but also make it easier for you to engage with existing research in the field.
Primary sources are the original and main sources of information about your topic and should be the main object of your analysis. They provide first-hand testimony or direct evidence on your subject. These are often authoritative and original accounts of the subject and can include:
Original documents, biographies, autobiographies, and manuscripts
Interviews, speeches, and oral histories
Creative works of art, literature, and films
Diaries and correspondence
Government documents, statistical data, and research reports
Case law, legislation, regulations, and constitutions
Generally, primary sources are created by the writers, witnesses, or first recorders of the subject or text at about the time they occurred. The authors can also be the originators of the text you’re analysing.
For instance, imagine you are writing an essay on themes of poverty and the Industrial Revolution in the work of Charles Dickens. The primary source(s) for this would be one or several of his novels, such as David Copperfield, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, or A Christmas Carol. You might reference specific parts of the narrative, incidents, or dialogue in your essay to illustrate your argument. You might also consider using some of Dickens’ writings, speeches, articles, or essays as your primary sources.
However, you should keep in mind the limits of your essay or assignment and how much you will be able to discuss. With longer assignments such as a thesis or dissertation, you might use many primary sources, but with shorter assignments, it’s a good idea to use only one or two primary sources so your argument doesn’t become too broad.
Once you have identified your primary sources, you must then critically read and examine them. Some important things to consider when analysing your sources would be:
What is the source and what is it telling you?
Who is the author or creator? What biases or assumptions might have influenced this author or creator?
Who is the intended audience?
Has the source been edited or translated, potentially altering its original meaning?
What questions could be answered by using this source?
Does your understanding of the text fit with other scholars’ interpretations, or does it challenge them?
When you have considered these points and outlined your argument, the time will come for you to start researching some secondary sources that support your argument even further.
Secondary sources interpret, enhance, and analyse primary sources. Unlike primary sources, they are not created or written by someone with first-hand testimony or direct evidence. Rather, secondary sources augment or enrich the information provided by a primary source and usually involve (or are related to) an evaluation of the original information. These secondary sources often take on different formats such as:
Peer-reviewed journal articles that comment on or analyse research
Books and articles that interpret or analyse information about the topic
Criticisms of literature, artworks, and music
Biographies (or autobiographies depending on context)
Newspaper articles and opinion pieces
Documents produced for government by academics or consultants
Usually, secondary sources should be used in an essay or assignment to further support the argument or claim you’re making. It shows to your assessor that you have engaged with existing research from other scholars as well as your primary source(s).
There is an important distinction to be made here between a secondary source and what is often referred to as a tertiary source. Tertiary sources are publications such as textbooks, dictionaries, encyclopedias, and handbooks that summarise, contextualise, or consolidate the information in primary or secondary sources. Sometimes, certain tertiary sources such as encyclopedias and textbooks can also be used as secondary sources, depending on the subject.
However, as a general rule of thumb, tertiary sources are often not accepted in academic research and should be avoided in citations as secondary sources. You can still use tertiary sources as starting points to your research. They could provide factual information you might need, distil large quantities of difficult information or data, or lead you to other relevant primary and secondary sources. Think of them as guidebooks when conducting your more in-depth research but avoid citing them as sources to support your argument.
Finding primary and secondary sources
The first starting point in locating relevant primary and secondary sources should be your university library resources. Most, if not all, colleges and universities have a wide variety of these materials at your disposal both through online access and printed books, as well as archives and research centres. Use these to your full advantage before seeking out any outside resources. If you need help locating what you need, speak to a subject librarian or other staff member who can assist you or even request the materials you need if the library doesn’t have them.
Other useful tools would be Google Scholar, JSTOR, Lexis Nexis, Scirus, and ERIC, which all provide databases you can search to find relevant sources. Make sure any academic research you locate has been peer-reviewed, meaning it has been evaluated for credibility by one or more academics before publication. The best way to check this is to look at the publication information of the journal or publisher to see if they use peer review. Some university library databases will allow you to filter your search for only peer-reviewed work through “advanced” or “expert” search options.
Most importantly, enjoy the process of researching! Finding sources to support your argument is also one of the best ways to get your ideas circulating and complete the best assignment you can. To help you organise your references, see our article by Suria Subiah.
J. L. is a PhD researcher in Film Studies at the University of Edinburgh. He received an MPhil in Literatures of the Americas from Trinity College, Dublin, as well as an MA in Film Studies from University College Dublin. He has presented his work at numerous conferences, including Cine-Excess and Film-Philosophy. His research interests include cult cinema, queer audiences, horror cinema, and cinema spectatorship.