3 Tips for Evaluating Primary and Secondary Sources

Evaluating primary and secondary sources is a critical step that needs to be taken before you begin to write your research papers. In this article, I will discuss three basic criteria for establishing whether or not the sources you intend to use are good enough to stand up to the critical review of your professors and peers.

What are primary and secondary sources?

Primary sources are original, first-hand accounts of events written by someone who witnessed the event in question. They can include such things as interviews, memoirs, journals, speeches, diaries, manuscripts, photographs or video recordings. They can also be previously published research reports, such as clinical trials or results of experiments. These are factual, not interpretive accounts.

Secondary sources are a second hand account of events and are used to interpret and draw conclusions about the events reported in primary sources. They are a step away from the event under review and provide information indirectly. These are things such as biographies, documentaries, encyclopedias or textbooks. History books most often rely on other histories and are often classic examples of secondary sources.

Once you’ve identified your sources, you need to assess how they stand up to these three basic criteria relating to your assignment: applicability, objectivity, and authority.

Is the source applicable to your assignment?

Determine whether or not the source is relevant to your subject before you spend time reviewing it. Is it suitable or appropriate to use in references? While you may identify sources, from books, to websites, to government records, that offer interesting opinions or facts, if they don’t specifically offer something of value to the topic of your paper, don’t use them.

Is the source objective?

When analyzing a source for any research paper, you should look for any bias. If bias is found, it doesn’t mean the source must be rejected automatically. To do so may cause you to miss out on some very good information. Bias is not often found in primary sources because of the straightforward nature of the source, but it is quite often found in secondary sources where an interpretation is put on the material. Look for any language that is emotion rousing. Determine whether or not the information provided by the source is valid and well researched.

Is the source authoritative?

It is important that you determine if the expertise of the source has been well established. For example, if the subject is mathematics and the source is a Nobel Prize winner in mathematics, the authority of the source would be well established. This means the burden of proof will be in the favor of the source. Ask yourself if you have ever seen the source mentioned in other sources of bibliographies.

It is of paramount importance when citing primary and secondary sources that you cite them accurately so that the reader can validate them. The citation style will vary based on the writing format assigned to you, whether APA or MLA or some other. To ensure accuracy, it’s best to use formatting software instead of manually editing them.

David Plaut is the founder of Reference Point Software (RPS). RPS offers a complete suite of easy-to-use formatting template products featuring MLA and APA style templates, freeing up time to focus on substance while ensuring formatting accuracy. For more information, log onto http://www.referencepointsoftware.com/ or write to:
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Reference Point Software is not associated with, endorsed by, or affiliated with the American Psychological Association (APA) or with the Modern Language Association (MLA).

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