How do I determine if a source is ‘primary’?

Thanks to our weekend librarian Josh Klar for this helpful post! – HC

In science, a primary source article reports on an empirical research study conducted by the authors of the article. Secondary sources, usually reviews, are often summarizing research that was done by other people.

A few good ways to identify a primary source article include looking for the following in the abstract or in the body of the article:

  • A reference to the “study” that was conducted by the authors:Abstract
  • A reference to the “research method” used to conduct the study (Sometimes this will not be discussed in the abstract and will be found in the article under “Method” or “Methodology”):Methods
    Secondary sources in science – again, usually reviews – sometimes include methods, too, so make sure to read this section carefully. Primary articles will refer to the kind of study that was conducted: clinical trial, randomized controlled trial, observational study, etc.
  • Primary articles reference the “results” discovered through the study, too – See Example 1 above again. This is where the authors list their contribution to the overall understanding of this topic in the literature.


In social sciences, humanities or the arts, sometimes it can be a bit trickier to determine if material is a primary source. In these disciplines, a primary source is any material that was produced by eyewitnesses to or participants in an event, and typically the material was written or created during the time of study or observation. Think of a photograph or a page from a diary. These are records of a moment in time and are examples of primary sources. Other examples could be: Memoirs, speeches, manuscripts, letters, interviews, news film footage, autobiographies, ethnographies or research data from a study. These primary sources all serve as raw material to interpret social, cultural, or historical events.

And just remember… any source that arrives at conclusions based on research from other studies are NOT primary sources. A few examples would include

  • Literature reviews
  • Encyclopedia articles
  • Many textbooks