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Writing the Research Paper: Distinguishing Among Sources

A guide to aid students with writing research papers

Defining Your Sources

Once you have determined your information need, it is imperative that you acknowledge the functional differences among resources. Most sources can be broken down into distinct types, as the following sections illustrate.


1.     Primary source-- a firsthand account; original material on which other research is based.

—novels, letters, photos, and surveys

2.     Secondary source-- a secondhand account; discussion or evaluation of a primary source

—criticism, histories, commentaries, and textbooks

3.     Tertiary source-- collection or summary of primary and secondary sources.

                        —almanacs, bibliographies, guidebooks, and manuals

Note: The context of a document may change its classification.


1.   Scholarly-- The main purpose of a scholarly journal is to report on original research or experimentation in order to make such information available to the rest of the scholarly world. Scholarly journals are almost always peer-reviewed, which generally means that numerous experts in the field have scrutinized and approved of the material before it reaches readers. Readers may expect accuracy and a sophisticated treatment of the topic.

American Economic Review

JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association 

2.   Substantive News or General Interest-- The main purpose of periodicals in this category is to provide information, in a general manner, to a broad audience of concerned citizens. Many of these articles go through a rigorous fact checking process. However, the editorial reviews may not involve exhaustive assessment by numerous recognized experts in the field.

National Geographic

New York Times 

3.   Popular-- The main purpose of popular periodicals is to entertain the reader, to sell products (their own or their advertisers), and/or to promote a viewpoint. Editors tend to assign more importance to aspects such as the topic’s broad appeal and the writer’s style than to accuracy, originality and depth of research.

Sports Illustrated


You may also wish to consult the Evaluating Online Information section of this guide. It highlights significant issues writers must also address when conducting research online.

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