Would a textbook be a prime source

Primary literature and secondary literature - difference and examples

Published on by Günter Schäfer

Most scientific papers use sources. The literature that you rely on when writing your bachelor's or master's thesis is divided into primary and secondary literature. Even a category "Tertiary literature" is there. And the distinction?

Primary literature is an immediate, authentic source - secondary literature already deals with these primary sources. When creating the bibliography in the literature, no distinction is made between primary and secondary sources, but you should do it yourself. The primary literature is the best basis for a work, but the secondary literature makes it easier for you to classify and evaluate.

Where is the difference?

  • What as Primary literature is first-hand information. This category includes any historical text such as diaries or letters, travel reports or articles in newspapers, but also photos and paintings. In the case of literary courses, works such as novels, poems, etc. are also among the primary sources, while the primary scientific literature also includes studies.
  • Secondary literature is, in short, dedicated to primary literature. These are specialist books that interpret, describe and analyze primary sources. Biographies and monographs are also part of the secondary literature.
  • The Tertiary literature are sources that do not offer groundbreaking new insights, but bring together and collect existing ideas or information - in the form of lexicons and encyclopedias, but also as textbooks. Above all, they are wonderful aids for orientation and often the starting point for a research question.
Reviews are a special group. A good scientific review can under certain circumstances provide new knowledge about the books or articles discussed and then belongs to the secondary literature. If it is content with summarizing the available information, it is a tertiary source.

Examples of primary and secondary literature

As Primary literatureapply “original” works or primary sources - the Secondary literatureis the scientific occupation with it or its analysis. A diary of a historical person, a travelogue, a philosophical treatise, a novel or a poem Primary literature. Analysis of these sources or a biography of the author (s), for example, would be secondary sources.

Goethe's "Faust" is a Example of primary literature. A linguistic analysis or an interpretation would be the same Secondary literaturelike an attempt to explain the poet's work from his biography.

Use primary and secondary literature in academic papers

If you work scientifically, you will need primary literature, mainly when it comes to the actual subject of your research. Secondary literature is also available for background information. A reproduction of an ancient Egyptian papyrus or a Qumran scroll would be such primary sources. In order to classify them historically and to assess their authenticity, you not only need translations and analyzes, but also secondary literature about finding, trading and changing owners of such texts.

Your findings are largely based on the primary source with which you can also substantiate your argument. The secondary literature can support and help classify and gives you an overview of a topic.

Cite primary and secondary literature

A quote from a primary source can be inserted directly or in the form of a paraphrase - to stay with the example of an ancient papyrus, also in transcription and / or translation of the content. You should point out the publication, in accordance with the citation rules that apply to your entire work.

You can quote from secondary literature, for example, if you do not have access to the original source. Here you mark the secondary status with the addition “quoted from” and the indication of the secondary source. In this case, too, you proceed according to the citation method you have chosen. In any case, you also enter your sources in the bibliography - unless a primary source is not available to you! Then it does not belong in the bibliography, in order not to give the impression that you have read the original text and used it at work.

An example of a decent secondary school can look like this:

In the secondary literature, a quote is given as follows: “The level of education among young people has not improved in the past twenty years” (Schmidt, 2020, p. 50).

The Secondary quotewith the indication of the source it would look like this:
"The level of education among young people has not improved in the past twenty years" (Schmidt, 2020, quoted from Maier, 2020, p. 70).

in the bibliographythe entry after the author of the work then reads as follows:
Maier, M. (2020). Educational policy in transition (1st edition). Berlin, Germany


How do I recognize primary literature?

Primary literature usually contains the first information about an event. Just ask yourself if a work was written or created by someone who witnessed the events immediately or participated in the study.

What is tertiary literature?

According to the definition, works that collect existing information, for example in the form of reference works or textbooks, belong to the tertiary sources.

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Günter Schäfer

Günter obtained his bachelor's degree in theology and is about to graduate with a master’s degree. As a blog author at studi-kompass, he likes to write about studies and student life. For Günter, a dream has come true with the blog because he likes writing and exchanging ideas with readers.