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Module 1: Grammar Module 2: Sources Module 3: Structure
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Unit 1:  About sourcesUnit 2: Evaluating sourcesUnit 3: Quoting & paraphrasingUnit 4: Reporting evidenceUnit 5: Referencing

What are sources?

This section explains what sources are, and identifies primary, secondary and tertiary sources.

Sources in a piece of academic writing are the materials from which the writer gathers ideas and information.

Print sources such as books and journals are the most frequently used sources in academic writing.

Non-print sources such as music recordings, radio or television broadcasts or transcripts, internet sites, films or images may also be important sources in some disciplines.

Primary, secondary, and tertiary sources

It is useful to categorise sources as primary, secondary or tertiary. To understand the difference between them, you need to think about sources in terms of relative proximity to an original event or experience.

  Primary sources Secondary sources Tertiary sources
Proximity to original event: A primary source is the source closest to the original event, research or experience. A secondary source of evidence is one step removed from the original (primary) source. It is usually based on the primary source. A tertiary source is one more step removed from the original (primary) source. It is usually based on a range of secondary sources.
  • an original letter
  • an original diary or journal
  • original notes from an experiment or piece of research
  • a novel, poem or play
  • an art work, theatrical performance or musical score or performance
  • a literary critique based on a poem, play or novel
  • a history book based on primary historical sources
  • a scientific report based on primary experimental notes
  • a journal article reviewing a number of different approaches (secondary sources) to a subject
  • a book of readings presenting different perspectives on the subject matter you are studying
  • a text book reviewing and interpreting a number of scientific discoveries, experiments or approaches

Which sources to use?

In academic writing, you should assume that you are required to use secondary and tertiary sources unless:

  • your lecturer or tutor specifically indicates that you should focus on the primary source(s), or
  • you are asked to write an entirely personal response to a primary source such as a poem, a piece of music, a performance, an artwork, or a video clip.