How to identify a primary reference

Filtering information to find the source
How to identify a primary reference

Primary references are those from which information originates. As explained by Princeton University, secondary references then analyze these initial documents, making them once removed from the event. In the world of knowledge-based writing, this makes them not as reliable, though many (such as textbooks) are considered as such.

Even further removed are tertiary references, which interpret and analyze the secondary sources.

The type of reference needed varies by topic and writing angle, and what is a primary reference for one article may not be for another (see below for examples), but primary references are the preferred sources when providing knowledge-based information.

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Step 1

Determine the information being sought

The status of a reference depends on both the information it contains and the information being sought.

Are you looking for the results of a study? The number of individuals using a particular program? The guidelines issued by a certain agency? Confirming that a public figure actually said something? Or perhaps the date that something occured?

Understanding the facts being pursued is the first step to knowing where to look for the source.

Step 2

Look for cited sources

  • If the information is available in an article, look for a citation where that writer obtained the information.
  • Ask yourself «who would have gathered this information?» and then search for the information on their website (example: you want to confirm labor statistics, so you find the website for the Dept. of Labor).
  • Search for other articles containing the information that may be able to direct you to the source.
  • If discussing the results of a study, look for journal or researcher names to locate the original study via search engines, PubMed, or the journal’s archive.
Step 3

Determine when the source was generated

In the internet age, secondary and tertiary references appear quickly after primary references are available. In the days of bound libraries, primary references were those that were written at the time of the event being described. When using older sources, determine when it was written in order to identify if it may be a primary reference. Some university libraries, such as the one at UC Berkeley, offer help in identifying such sources.

Step 4

Ask yourself some questions

  • Did this person/agency/group gather the information they are providing?
  • Do other articles cite this reference as the authority?
  • Does this resource provide information that is not available anywhere else?

Answering «yes» indicates you probably have the primary reference.

Things Needed
• Initial source of information
• Key search terms of interest, including a name, event, or study title
• Library or search engine access to look for other references

Tips & Warnings
• A tertiary or secondary source becomes a primary source when it is being discussed — for example, when discussing the history of a blog, the blog itself is the ideal source of reliable information
• News reports are usually reliable and acceptable references, but they are often secondary sources unless including quotes and eyewitness accounts.
• Look for a byline or author attribution — regurgitated reports often lack them


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