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Different Types of Sources

This guide discusses some of the different types of sources you are likely to find in our databases.

Primary vs. Secondary Sources

Source Type     



The definition of a primary source differs depending on the academic discipline/field of study. For History, primary sources include first-person accounts and historical documents. For the Sciences, primary sources are typically research studies or experiments performed by the author. For the Arts and Humanities, primary sources are often literary or artistic works. In all cases, the original document has not been previously published or interpreted by anyone else.

  • First publication of a scientific study conducted by the authors.
  • First person account of an event.
  • Speech or lecture.
  • Original artwork or work of literature.
  • Handwritten manuscript.
  • A diary.
  • Historical documents, e.g., the Constitution.


Secondary sources are always one step removed from the primary original source. The author is reporting on, interpreting, or forming conclusions about the information that is conveyed in the primary source. Anything that uses or examines other people's primary sources to make another point or sum up what the other person said is a secondary source.

  • Magazine article reporting on a scientific study. 
  • A book about a historical event.
  • Review of a book, music CD, or art exhibit.
  • A scientific review article that brings together several other researchers' studies to analyze.

Different Types of Publications and Articles

You will find both primary and secondary resources in most of our databases. Articles and book chapters can come from sources that are informational, trade, or scholarly publications. Your professors will often require that you only use scholarly publications, so it's important to know the difference.

Informational: This includes textbooks, newspaper articles, articles from magazines (such as Time, Business Week, or Psychology Today), blogs, and other secondary sources.

Trade: These are designed for people who work in a particular industry. They contain news about the industry written by industry insiders and are generally dedicated towards advancing the interests of that industry or field.

Scholarly: These are articles that are written by academics or researchers in accordance with the accepted scientific processes of each field. A scholarly article can be peer-reviewed, empirical, primary, or a review article, or a combination of these things.

  • Peer-reviewed. Peer review is an important part of academic publishing. When a scientist or researcher submits an article to a journal, it's not published immediately. The article is sent out to several anonymous reviewers who look over the article to see if it is methodologically sound and if the conclusions are logical. The reviewers will recommend that the article be published as it is, or they will recommend revisions or improvements to the article, or they may reject it.
  • Empirical or Quantitative. These articles use numbers and statistics.
  • Qualitative. These articles use methods that can't be easily quantified, such as interviews or focus groups.
  • Both qualitative and quantitative follow a standard structure. Look for an introduction, a literature review, methodology (what the researchers actually did- a science experiment, a survey, etc), results, discussion, and conclusion.
  • Review articles. This kind of article does not include any primary research. Instead, the author will locate all the articles that have been published on a certain topic and look for common findings among them.