Not your politician’s “primary.”

Professors often require that students use primary sources in their research. However, the word “primary” can be misleading. The most recognized kind of primary source is something that is created at the time of an event – photographs, diaries or journals, architectural plans, newspaper articles, and a radio broadcast are common examples of primary sources. They lend us a “there as it’s happening” look at an event.

But an original research article is also considered a primary source, because it is an original experiment or study, and is directly reporting the results and observations of that experiment. This can be confusing to students who, upon a professor’s instructions to use primary sources, use a newspaper article when the professor was expecting the use of original scientific research articles.

To make it even more confusing, news articles can also often be considered secondary or tertiary sources (which analyze and communicate findings from primary sources). For instance, consider the story, “Well-done red meat linked to aggressive prostate cancer,” which appeared recently on In this case, the news article is both a primary source (reporting events) AND a secondary source (condensing the scientists’ research study into plain language). The research study the article quotes, “Impact of Meat Consumption, Preparation and Mutagens on Aggressive Prostate Cancer“, IS primary because it is an original experiment. The key here is that the study is reporting NEW findings, not reviewing the findings of others.

Confused yet?

When in doubt, clarify with your professor the parameters of the assignment. Librarians can also help sort out the differences – ask us!


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