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How to Start the Research Process

A guide for starting the research paper and project process.

Primary, Secondary & Tertiary Sources

Primary sources are first-hand, authoritative accounts of an event, topic, or historical time period. They are typically produced at the time of the event by a person who experienced it, but can also be made later on in the form of personal memoirs or oral histories.

Anything that contains original information on a topic is considered a primary source. Usually, primary sources are the object discussed in your paper. For instance, if you are writing an analysis on Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, the book would be a primary source. Just because a source is old does not mean it is a primary source.

Examples of primary sources include:

  • letters, diaries or personal journals
  • original photographs
  • speeches, autobiographies or memoirs
  • creative works (plays, paintings, songs...)
  • research data and surveys

Secondary sources analyze, review or critique primary sources. They often include an analysis of the event discussed or featured in the primary source. They are second-hand accounts that interpret or draw conclusions from one or more primary sources.

Examples include:

  • biographies
  • essays or literature reviews
  • criticisms or commentaries
  • scholarly articles that analyze or discuss events and ideas
  • historical studies
Tertiary resources provide overviews of topics by synthesizing information gathered from other resources. Tertiary resources may often contain both primary and secondary sources. Information is presented as factual and does not include analysis or critique.
  • encyclopedias
  • almanacs
  • textbooks
  • handbooks

Popular, Scholarly and Professional/Trade Articles

Popular Articles (Magazines)

Popular articles are written by journalists for a general audience. They cover news and current events in a field, profiles of people or places, and political opinions. These articles use language easily understood by general readers and tend to be shorter in length than scholarly journal articles.

Examples of popular magazines:

  • The New York Times
  • Time
  • Psychology Today
  • People
  • Consumer Reports

Academic or Scholarly Articles

Scholarly literature is written by and for researchers, faculty or scholars who are experts in their field. People who write for academic journals are employed by colleges, universities, or other institutions of education or research. They submit articles to the editors of the journals, who decide whether or not to publish the article.

The most prestigious academic journals utilize the peer-review process. This means that, before an article is accepted for publication, it is reviewed by several experts in the field, who suggest possible changes, check the facts, and recommend to the editor of the journal whether or not to publish the article.

These articles tend to use scholarly or technical language and include full citations for sources. The best way to find articles from academic journals is to use library databases.

Examples of scholarly journals are:

  • Journal of the American Medical Association
  • New England Journal of Medicine
  • Nature
  • American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education

Professional Articles

Trade and professional literature resemble scholarly literature in that it is written by people working in the field. However, articles in trade and professional journals cover news in the field, brief reports on research, and opinions about trends and events.

Examples of trade and professional journals are:

  • American Libraries
  • AdWeek
  • Drug Store News