Social Research Methods

Primary vs. Secondary Source Material

Primary source material presents an original study.  It is a first-hand account of research written by those who conducted it.  Primary source material generally:

  • contains mention of methodology,
  • presents data,
  • presents findings and discusses those findings.

Secondary source material draws upon existing primary source literature to analyze, interpret, or discuss a concept.  Secondary source material can be found in:

  • literature reviews, which "try to make sense of all of the research that has been done in a given area" (Perry 2011),
  • position papers, which propose answers or form hypotheses that can be tested by subsequent primary source studies,
  • books, such as textbooks that try to summarize the literature of a given field.

Secondary source material usually does not mention studies, methods, or findings in the article's abstract.  Additionally, look for the body of the article to be made up of citation and analysis of other published material.

Is it Primary or Secondary Source Material?

When searching for primary source material, look for certain words to appear in the article's abstract.  Words such as "study," "method," "find," and "results" will generally tip you off that the article in question presents primary source material.

Consider these examples, taken from the following articles' abstracts.

First, an example of primary source material:

Callahan, R., Wilkinson, L., Muller, C., & Frisco, M. (2009). ESL Placement and Schools. Educational Policy, 23(2), 355 -384. doi:10.1177/0895904807310034

In this study, the authors explore English as a Second Language (ESL) placement as a measure of how schools label and process immigrant students. Using propensity score matching and data from the Adolescent Health and Academic Achievement Study and the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, the authors estimate the effect of ESL placement on immigrant achievement.  In schools with more immigrant students, the authors find that ESL placement results in higher levels of academic performance; in schools with few immigrant students, the effect reverses. This is not to suggest a one-size-fits-all policy; many immigrant students, regardless of school composition, generational status, or ESL placement, struggle to achieve at levels sufficient for acceptance to a 4-year university. This study offers several factors to be taken into consideration as schools develop policies and practices to provide immigrant students opportunities to learn.

Now, take a look at an example of secondary source material:

Ernst-Slavit, G., Moore, M., & Maloney, C. (2002). Changing Lives: Teaching English and Literature to ESL Students. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 46(2), 116-128.

Ernst-Slavit et al provide teachers with selected background knowledge and strategies that enhance the learning process for English as a Second Language (ESL) students in secondary classrooms. With the changing U.S. demographic picture and its impact in schools as a backdrop, key principles in the field of ESL and a brief description of various program models for second-language learning are presented. Also discussed are the stages of language development and cultural adaptation that all second-language learners navigate through. Important linguistic and cultural processes are outlined and effective activities are suggested for students in various stages within those processes.