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Using Secondary Sources to Support Your Argument

Published by at October 12th, 2023 , Revised On October 12, 2023

In research and writing, sources are the pillars that support arguments, elucidate ideas, and provide context. Among these, secondary sources emerge as an essential component, bridging the raw data or first-hand accounts with comprehensive interpretations and analyses. Paraphrasing in sources is often needed to incorporate these secondary sources effectively. So, what exactly is a secondary source?

What is a Secondary Source?

A secondary source refers to any material that interprets, analyses, or reviews information originally presented elsewhere. Unlike primary sources, which offer direct evidence or first-hand testimony, secondary sources work on those original materials, offering commentary, critiques, and perspectives. How to integrate sources into your writing is a skill that researchers must develop to maintain the original intent and context of their sources. Think of primary sources as the eyewitnesses of an event and secondary sources as the historians, journalists, or critics who later write about it.

The role of secondary sources is not merely supplementary. They hold immense significance in various forms of writing:

Academic Writing

Scholars frequently use secondary sources to provide context, ground their research in existing knowledge, and showcase ongoing conversations in a field. For instance, a researcher studying the effects of a new educational policy might consult journal articles or books that discuss previous policies or the historical background of education reforms.


While first-hand accounts and direct sources are crucial, journalists also rely on secondary sources to give depth to their stories. They might quote expert analyses, cite prior reporting on the issue, or provide background information using secondary sources.

Other Writing Forms

Whether in business reports, legal briefs, or even fiction writing, secondary sources can offer context, validate points, and enhance the richness of the content. For instance, a historical novelist might use books or articles written by historians as secondary sources to ensure the accuracy of the period they are depicting.

The Difference Between Primary and Secondary Sources

Research, whether academic, journalistic, or personal projects, often involves delving into a diverse range of materials. At the forefront of this are primary and secondary sources, each with its unique characteristics and roles. Understanding the distinction between these two is vital for any researcher, as it enables them to evaluate and effectively use their resources critically.

Primary Sources: The First-Hand Accounts

  • Definition: Primary sources are original, uninterpreted records or first-hand testimonies of an event, experience, concept, or time period.
  • Characteristics: They are direct, unaltered, and often without any commentary or analysis.
  • Examples: Diaries, letters, photographs, raw survey data, original research studies, artefacts, interviews, and official documents such as birth certificates or treaties.

Secondary Sources: The Interpreters and Analysers

  • Definition: Secondary sources, as the name implies, are one step removed from primary sources. They interpret, analyse, discuss, or evaluate primary sources or events.
  • Characteristics: They provide commentary, place events or findings in context, or offer a perspective on primary materials.

Example of Secondary Source

Here are a few secondary source examples for review.

  • Books: Many academic and non-fiction books (that are not direct testimonies) fall into this category. For instance, a book analysing the causes and effects of World War II is a secondary source, while a soldier’s diary from the war front is primary.
  • Journal Articles: Research articles that review or discuss original research or articles that provide overviews of topics are secondary sources.
  • Reviews: This can range from book reviews in literary journals to film critiques in popular magazines.
  • Historical Commentaries: Works that interpret or analyse historical events.
  • Documentaries: While they may use primary source material (like footage or interviews), the final produced piece, which provides an interpretation or perspective, is secondary.
  • Bibliographies might compile and provide context for primary and other secondary sources.
  • Encyclopedias and Handbooks: They offer overviews and summaries of topics, often based on primary and other secondary sources.

Benefits of Using Secondary Sources

While primary sources offer raw data, secondary sources build on this foundation, interpreting and analysing the available information. The advantage of information literacy lies in the ability to discern which secondary source adds value to your research:

1. Lends Credibility to Your Argument

  • Expert Analysis: Secondary sources often come from experts in the field, such as scholars, historians, or professionals. Their insights can lend gravitas to your argument, showcasing that it aligns with or challenges recognised authority.
  • Cross-referencing: When multiple secondary sources support your viewpoint, it can bolster the credibility of your claims. Such cross-referencing demonstrates comprehensive research.

2. Offers a Comprehensive View of the Topic

  • Broad Perspective: Whereas primary sources might provide a narrow or specific account, secondary sources can give a panoramic view of a topic, presenting an overarching narrative.
  • Synthesis of Information: Secondary sources often synthesise a vast array of primary data, offering readers a consolidated understanding. This can be especially beneficial when navigating complex topics.

3. Provides Context and Background

  • Historical and Cultural Setting: Understanding the backdrop against which certain events occurred, or concepts evolved, is crucial. Secondary sources offer this contextual framework, situating primary data within broader historical, cultural, or academic narratives.
  • Linking to Pre-existing Knowledge: Secondary sources can connect new findings or ideas to existing theories, debates, or research paradigms, ensuring that your argument is rooted in established knowledge.

4. Allows for Comparison and Contrast with Other Viewpoints

  • Diverse Perspectives: Secondary sources can provide various perspectives on a topic. By exploring these, you can contrast your own stance with others, demonstrating a holistic understanding.
  • Highlighting Gaps or Controversies: Engaging with multiple secondary sources might reveal discrepancies, gaps, or areas of contention in the field. Addressing these can strengthen your argument, showing awareness of the broader discourse.
  • Refining Your Position: Engaging with opposing or different viewpoints can help refine and solidify your position, leading to a more robust and nuanced argument. This approach demonstrates critical thinking, an invaluable skill in research and writing.

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How to Find Relevant Secondary Sources

Embarking on a research journey often feels like being a detective on the hunt for clues. Secondary sources are vital components of this quest, providing insights, interpretations, and analyses that help shape and strengthen your argument.

1. Libraries and Archives

  • University and Public Libraries: These repositories house a vast collection of books, journals, periodicals, and other publications. Using the library’s online catalogue or consulting with librarians can lead you to relevant materials.
  • Specialised Libraries: Institutions often have specialised libraries (e.g., law, medicine, arts) that focus on specific disciplines, offering in-depth resources.
  • Archives: These are treasure troves of historical documents, newspapers, manuscripts, and more. While they predominantly hold primary sources, they also have catalogues, bibliographies, and reference sections with secondary source materials.

2. Academic Databases

  • JSTOR: An extensive digital library offering journal articles, books, and primary sources across various disciplines.
  • Google Scholar: A freely accessible search engine that indexes scholarly articles across numerous disciplines. It also offers citation metrics and links to related articles.
  • Other Databases: Depending on your field, platforms like PubMed (for medicine), IEEE Xplore (for electronics and electrical engineering), PsycINFO (for psychology), and many others can be invaluable.

3. Professional Publications

  • Journals: Subject-specific journals (both print and online) publish articles, reviews, and commentaries pertinent to their field. Look for the leading journals in your discipline.
  • Magazines: Professional magazines might offer articles, reviews, and features relevant to certain industries or areas of interest.
  • Reports and Whitepapers: Many professional organisations, think tanks, and research bodies release reports and whitepapers that discuss specific issues, trends, or findings in-depth.

4. Recommendations from Experts in the Field

  • Academic Advisers and Professors: If you’re in academia, your advisers, professors, or faculty members can provide recommendations based on their expertise and familiarity with the literature.
  • Conferences and Seminars: Attend presentations, workshops, or panel discussions. Presenters often reference key works in the field. You can also network with attendees for recommendations.
  • Citation Tracking: Review the bibliographies or reference lists of key articles or books you’ve already identified. This “snowball” method can lead you to additional relevant sources.
  • Online Forums and Academic Networks: Websites like ResearchGate or Academia.edu, or even subject-specific forums, allow researchers to discuss works, share resources, and ask for recommendations.

Pro Tips for Using Secondary Sources in Arguments

  • As you uncover sources, keep a log or database. Note down the source details, its relevance, and any pertinent insights. Tools like Zotero or Mendeley can assist in managing your references and source citing, ensuring that you give proper credit to the original authors.
  • Remember, purchasing every book or article can be expensive. Explore interlibrary loans, online access, or institutional subscriptions.

How to Evaluate the Credibility of Secondary Sources

Source evaluation is a fundamental step to ensure the accuracy and reliability of the information you gather:

Checking the Author’s Credentials and Expertise

Investigate the author’s educational background and professional experience. An expert in nuclear physics might not be the most credible author for a historical analysis, and vice versa.

Established authors often have a consistent track record of publications in reputable journals or with esteemed publishers.

Furthermore, being affiliated with a respected academic or research institution can bolster an author’s credibility. Ensure the author does not have clear biases or vested interests that might skew their interpretations.

Analysing the Publication Source

Established publishers and peer-reviewed journals maintain rigorous standards, ensuring the credibility of their publications. Moreover, sources that have undergone a thorough editorial or peer-review process are generally more reliable.

Positive feedback or endorsements from experts in the field can bolster a source’s credibility.

Considering the Publication Date (Relevance and Timeliness)

  • Current vs. Outdated: Depending on your topic, more recent publications might offer the latest insights, research, or interpretations. However, older seminal works can still be critical in certain fields.
  • Historical Context: Some older sources can provide valuable historical perspectives, even if they aren’t current.
  • Editions and Updates: Updated or revised editions of books or articles suggest that the content has been reviewed and refined over time.

Cross-referencing with Other Credible Sources

If multiple credible sources offer similar interpretations or findings, it increases the likelihood of the information being accurate. Credible secondary sources also often address opposing viewpoints or counterarguments, ensuring a holistic analysis. A well-researched source will cite its references, allowing you to track the primary and other secondary sources that informed its content.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Books (e.g., biographies)
  • Journal articles
  • Reviews
  • Essays
  • Encyclopedias
  • Documentaries
  • Historical interpretations

Secondary sources, which interpret, analyse, or summarise primary sources, are also often referred to as “interpretive sources” or “commentary sources.” They provide a second-hand account of events, subjects, or phenomena and offer an analysis or commentary on the information derived from primary sources or other secondary references.

A secondary source interprets, analyses, or summarises primary sources. These are often accounts written after the fact with the benefit of hindsight. Examples include textbooks, book reviews, journal articles, essays, encyclopedias, documentaries, and historical interpretations. They provide insight into the interpretation of original events or data.

  • Identify reputable sources that discuss your topic.
  • Extract relevant information or perspectives.
  • Paraphrase or quote directly, ensuring proper citation.
  • Integrate into your argument, comparing or contrasting with other views.
  • Use consistently to maintain credibility and avoid plagiarism.

About Alvin Nicolas

Avatar for Alvin NicolasNicolas has a master's degree in literature and a PhD degree in statistics. He is a content manager at ResearchProspect. He loves to write, cook and run. Nicolas is passionate about helping students at all levels.