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CHEM 40A (Klosterman, Fall 2018): Primary, Secondary, Tertiary Sources

Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources

The primary sources are where original research is reported. That information, over time, makes its way into secondary sources, while the tertiary sources are the resources used to search primary/secondary sources.


Adapted from MMW / MCWP guides


What constitutes secondary vs. tertiary varies based on who you talk to (including librarians). Sometimes it's the databases that are considered secondary; encyclopedias may be treated as tertiary sources. What's important, however, is knowing what's primary and what is not.

  • If you need background information, summaries, or reviews of recent research --> secondary sources
  • If you need the most current information/research (usually more detailed) --> primary sources

Knowing which one(s) you need will help you determine what to use to locate them. For research articles, you'd go to databases like Web of Science, and even Google Scholar. But for those secondary sources, you may need to search the databases (for review articles), the Library catalog (for books), or consult one of our research guides (for a list of encyclopedias). But you won't be able to find research articles in the Library catalog.