Understanding Sources

An incomplete grasp of a source can result in accidental plagiarism. This lesson will walk you through steps to understand sources and develop your own arguments about them.

Introduction: Kinds of Sources

There are two kinds of source material: primary and secondary sources.

Primary sources capture an event as it happens without any kind of critical distance. The creators of the document, data, or artifact may attempt to interpret their experience, but they lack the benefit of hindsight. Primary sources can include letters, diaries, novels, photographs, films, newspaper articles, artifacts, and more.

Primary sources are valuable because they are closest to the thing they try to document, but this does not mean they are infallible or objective.

Secondary sources make arguments using the information found in primary sources: they contextualize the primary source and put that material in relation to other data or research. Secondary sources include academic books, journal articles, and encyclopedia entries.

Secondary sources generally try to synthesize multiple kinds of information in order to produce a credible interpretation. As you will see, they do not always succeed in this aim.

Every field has its own version of primary and secondary sources. Some sources can be used as either primary or secondary depending on the argument you’re making. When in doubt, ask your instructor.

This module has two sections:

How to interpret sources.

How avoid accidental plagiarism by taking good notes.