A primary source provides direct or firsthand evidence about an event, object, person, or work of art. Primary sources include historical and legal documents, eyewitness accounts, results of experiments, statistical data, pieces of creative writing, audio and video recordings, speeches, and art objects. Interviews, surveys, fieldwork, and Internet communications via email, blogs, listservs, and newsgroups are also primary sources. In the natural and social sciences, primary sources are often empirical studies—research where an experiment was performed or a direct observation was made. The results of empirical studies are typically found in scholarly articles or papers delivered at conferences.
Secondary sources describe, discuss, interpret, comment upon, analyze, evaluate, summarize, and process primary sources. Secondary source materials can be articles in newspapers or popular magazines, book or movie reviews, or articles found in scholarly journals that discuss or evaluate someone else's original research.
Characteristics of Primary Sources
Bullet points courtesy of The University of California at Irvine Libraries.
The infographic below gives the definition, characteristics, and examples of primary, secondary and tertiary sources. Notice, journal articles are listed for the sciences as a primary source and a secondary source for non-scientific disciplines. At the top of the graphic is the publishing timeline. As you can see primary sources are generally published first, then secondary sources. In the research timeline, secondary sources are generally consulted first to provide needed context for primary source research.