In academic research, it's important to be able to distinguish between different types of sources. These differences often are contextual, meaning that a single source might fit in different categories depending on how you are using it and in what academic discipline you are writing.
Primary sources are the raw materials of research. They provide firsthand access to words, images, or objects created directly by the persons involved in the activity or event. The value of primary sources is that they allow the researcher to get as close as possible to the original work. It is important to note that the types of information that can be considered primary sources may vary depending on the subject discipline, and also on how you are using the material. Time is also a defining element.
Primary Source Examples: data, field studies, theories, interviews, original documents, speeches, writings by the person under study, anything produced during that time period
Secondary sources discuss, report on, or provide commentary about primary sources. They are important to researchers as they offer an interpretation of information gathered from primary sources.
Secondary Source Examples: journal, magazine & newspaper articles, biographies, monographs
Tertiary sources present summaries, condense, or collect information from primary and/or secondary sources. They can be a good place to look up facts, get a general overview of a subject, or locate primary and secondary sources.
Tertiary Source Examples: encyclopedias, dictionaries, textbooks, handbooks, timelines, bibliographies
Scholarly sources present sophisticated, researched arguments using both primary and secondary sources and are written by experts. Journals are examples of scholarly sources.
Popular sources aim to inform or entertain and are intended for a general, non-specialized audience. In academic writing, popular sources most often are analyzed as primary sources. Magazines are examples of popular sources.
To determine the difference between these two types of sources, ask yourself:
BEAM is a framework for thinking about the various ways in which a resource might be used to make a researched argument.
What could a writer do with this source?
Background: general information, establish facts
Exhibit: explicate, interpret, analyze
Argument: affirm, dispute, refine, extend
Method: critical lens, key terms, theory, style, perspective, discourse