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Research Skills for Students

An Open Educational Resource

Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources

Another information category is called publication mode and has to do with whether the information is

  • Firsthand information (information in its original form, not translated or published in another form).
  • Secondhand information (a restatement, analysis, or interpretation of original information).
  • Third-hand information (a summary or repackaging of original information, often based on secondary information that has been published).

The three labels for information sources in this category are, respectively, primary sources, secondary sources, and tertiary sources. Here are examples to illustrate the first- handedness, second-handedness, and third-handedness of information:

Primary Source: The novel Amongst Women by author John McGahern.

Secondary Source: A scholarly article analyzing passages from the novel Amongst Women.

Tertiary Source: A Wikipedia article about John McGahern.

When you make distinctions between primary, secondary, and tertiary sources, you are relating the information itself to the context in which it was created. Understanding that relationship is an important skill that you’ll need in college, as well as in the workplace. Noting the relationship between creation and context helps us understand the “big picture” in which information operates and helps us figure out which information we can depend on. That’s a big part of thinking critically.

Click here for an activity to assess your knowledge!