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Choosing Credible Sources & Spotting Fake News: Primary Sources Vs. Secondary Sources

This guide examines how to verify the credibility of sources. Included are tips for spotting fake news.

Primary & Secondary Sources

Primary sources include work produced at the same time that the events described in the source occurred.

Secondary sources typically appear in most of your writing in college. While you may be asked to use primary sources to research your topic, secondary sources will help you determine which primary sources you should use. In any case, you should think critically while researching.

Primary Sources

Even if some research material does not meet standards of scholarly work, it may still be useful. Use it as a primary text (needs to be analyzed) instead of as a secondary text, which is a text supporting your argument or providing a theoretical framework for analysis.

Secondary Sources

  • Secondary sources are sources that cite, comment on or build on primary sources
  • Secondary sources are written after the fact (generally speaking)
  • Secondary sources interpret and analyze primary source

So, if Achebe's Things Fall Apart is a Primary source, then an article analyzing a custom within the Igbo tribe is a Secondary source . . . you get the idea!

Primary Sources Information

  • Primary sources are original materials
  • Primary sources are also called original sources or evidence
  • Primary sources consist of articles, documents, recordings, or other materials that were created at the time of the study or writing
  • Primary sources might also include memoirs, autobiographies or oral histories that were recorded later than the period under study

If you are using George Orwell's 1984 as a Primary source, then an article analyzing the motif of doublethink in 1984 is a Secondary source.

The Declaration of Independence would be a Primary source, but a biography of Thomas Jefferson would be a Secondary source.

Is it Primary or Secondary?

Sometimes, determining whether a source is Primary or Secondary is tricky. For instance, what about newspapers? An article's author presents his or her interpretation, but if the article reports current events, it would be Primary. If the author is covering past events, it is Secondary. Remember an article about a past event often presents primary evidence concerning the author's context.

Another tricky determination is fiction. If you're studying a novel or short story, it is a Primary source. However, if you're using the novel or short story as evidence to support another theory, it is a Secondary source.