What Are Secondary Sources and How Do You Find Them?
Updated: Apr 21, 2022
If you are beginning your first research project, you may imagine yourself alone, venturing deep into a highly specialized area of study. However, the idea that scholarly research is isolating and comes from individual inspiration—is nonsense. When you begin a research project, you are actually entering a conversation with scholars around the world and sometimes, with thinkers who have been dead for centuries. Of course, you won’t be able to visit and consult with every expert in your field while developing your project, so you’ll have to access their ideas through their published papers and books. These publications are what we call secondary sources and they can transform your research from a collection of individual musings into your scholarly contribution to a global conversation. This blog will explore exactly what secondary sources are and how you can find them.
Secondary v primary
Secondary sources are “secondary” only with respect to your main, “primary” object of study. For example, if you are writing a paper about an Jane Austen’s Emma—that is, using Emma as your primary source—then your secondary sources may include a biography of Austen, a few literary critical articles interpreting some feature of Emma that interests you, and a scholarly book or two on the forms of other popular novels published in Austen’s day.
What all of these hypothetical secondary sources have in common is that they offer you two kinds of background on your primary source. First, these sources offer facts about the primary source: e.g., where it came from, what its author was like, what kinds of narrative forms its author likely read. Then, building on these facts, your secondary sources will offer you scholarly opinions: interpretations of your primary source. When your paper engages with these opinions—agreeing, disagreeing, or building on them—it is entering a scholarly conversation.
Finding secondary sources
So how are you supposed to select secondary sources that feature legitimate scholarly interpretations? First, you need to think about legitimacy. To offer a different example here, suppose you’re a lab scientist, reading scholarly literature in preparation for an experiment studying how depression affects adolescent attention spans. How can you know that the article you’re reading does not misinterpret its data? The larger question here, for researchers in any field, is: how can you decide when to trust and engage with a secondary source?
To answer this question and ensure that researchers can trust one another’s findings, scholarly journals and academic publishing houses use a system called “double-blind peer review.” Every time that a researcher wishes to publish an article, two other scholars in that researcher’s field must read it without knowing the identity of its author. Those two “peer reviewers” will offer comments on the researcher’s draft, and the journal’s editor will require the author to answer all of them to the satisfaction of the reviewers. When you are looking for secondary sources for your own research project, try to work only with peer-reviewed publications.
So how can you find a peer-reviewed secondary source? The best place to start is Google Scholar. Try this: in a separate tab, open Google Scholar and type in three key terms from your project. To continue with my Austen example, search “Austen Emma marriage.” You’ll notice that you get many different kinds of results: books, PDFs, and crucially, links to academic search engines like JSTOR and Proquest. If your school already has a subscription to any of these platforms, then you should be able to click on those links and download an article. But before you go ahead and start reading, pause and check whether or not this article is peer-reviewed. Unlike many subscription-based scholarly search engines—e.g., JSTOR, Proquest, Project Muse, university library apps (e.g., Harvard’s HOLLIS)—Google Scholar does not have an option to restrict its search results to only include peer-reviewed articles. It does, however, offer links at the top of each entry directly to each article or book’s academic press, journal website, or database. Make sure you click those and look for the publisher’s statement of peer review.
If you are fortunate enough to have full access to academic search engines, I recommend starting your search for secondary sources in JSTOR, which has articles for a wide range of disciplines. Use the “advanced search” settings to name a few key terms, restrict your search results to only include peer-reviewed articles or chapters, identify the academic fields that you’re interested in, and specify how new you need your secondary source to be (e.g., published in the last five or ten years). To determine if a source is relevant to your work, I recommend reading the abstracts of each article you find; this will give you insight into whether this piece of writing is applicable to your research.
If you need help coming up with your project’s key terms and wading through all the search results, sign up to talk with a CRI mentor, who can help you select the best secondary sources for your project.