Source Types: Primary vs. Secondary vs. Practice-Based
There are many different ways to classify information sources. A common way of doing this, in a very general sense, is referring to a source as “Primary” or “Secondary.” The definitions of primary and secondary are very slippery, since they can differ a great deal depending upon what discipline (subject area) they are being used in. Further complicating things is the fact that some sources can be a little bit of both primary and secondary at the same time. It is important to accept that these terms are sometimes not exclusive and can be relative based on the situation.
For the purposes of this course, there will be three categories of research source with which you will be working: Primary, Secondary, and Practice-Based. The definitions of these terms, for this course, should be understood as follows:
A primary source, in almost all disciplines, is understood to be an original of something. For this course, this originality will be about the research question and the data. Primary research is research that has been conducted that seeks to answer some question, collects data specifically for this purpose, analyzes and discusses it, and then is published, usually in a scholarly, peer-reviewed journal. Primary research articles can usually be identified by the presence of sections titled “Methods” and “Results,” along with charts or tables with data. Usually by reading an article’s abstract (summary) at the beginning, you can tell if a formal experiment was conducted and if it includes original research.
Other articles you may come across will be what are sometimes called “review articles.” Review articles can be quite lengthy and also be published in scholarly, peer-reviewed journals, but would not be considered original research. Review articles are articles that examine the existing literature on a subject. Since they are reviewing and discussing the work of others, and work that already exists, review articles are not considered primary sources.
Don’t be confused if you see a section titled “Literature Review” in an article you think is primary. Even primary research is expected to refer to and utilize pre-existing research. It’s a necessary part of the process—“to stand on the shoulders of giants,” as they say. But if the main focus of the work is only to review the work of others, then that source would be secondary.
A secondary source is one that is written about other sources. Review articles, mentioned above, are a good example of a secondary research: reviewing and analyzing the results of previous research. Secondary sources can be published in scholarly journals, or they can simply be articles in a newspaper or popular magazine about research that has been published. It’s common to see newspaper articles reporting on the “results of a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine” or along those lines.
For purposed of this course, a “practice-based” source will be one that provides practical information about a topic. These are often written by an experienced practitioner in a field, for example, a vice-president for human resources at a Fortune 500 company as opposed to a scholar in a field, such as an associate professor of labor studies. Practice-based articles tend more toward providing advice or advocating particular courses of action to take in real-world situations.