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Literature Review Basics

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What is a literature review?

A literature review is both the process and the product.

Bangert-Drowns, R. (2005). Literature review. In S. Mathison (Ed.), Encyclopedia of evaluation. (pp. 232-233). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.

Why review the literature?

Reference to prior literature is a defining feature of academic and research writing. Why review the literature?

Feak, C. B., Swales, J. M., Swales, J. M., & Feak, C. B. (2009). Telling a research story: Writing a literature review . Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press.

Literature Reviews: An Overview for Graduate Students by North Carolina State University Libraries

Types of Literature Reviews

Books/Book Chapters on Literature Reviews

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secondary sources literature review

The Literature Review: Home

About this guide

​This guide provides an overview of the literature review process including useful tips and advice on effective searching and managing of resources. The guide is intended as a starting point for any student or researcher new to the literature review process.

Types of literature reviews

Principles of a good literature review, endnote support, related library guides.

You may have heard of a number of different types  of literature review. Common terms include:

There are a number of organisations, such as the international Cochrane and Campbell Collaborations, and the Joanna Briggs Institute which support the conduct of systematic reviews in health, social welfare, criminal justice and education (see the Systematic Reviews tab for more information).

For the purposes of this guide, we will focus on general principles that apply to anyone (from any discipline) conducting a good-quality literature review .

A literature review can be defined as follows:

A critical summary and assessment of the range of existing materials dealing with knowledge and understanding in a given field … Its purpose is to locate the research project, to form its context or background, and to provide insights into previous work

( The SAGE Dictionary of Social Research Methods  2006)

Jupp, V 2006, 'Literature review',  The SAGE Dictionary of Social Research Methods , SAGE Publications, London

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A reference management tool such as Endnote is highly recommended for those conducting a literature review. For help with Endnote, as well as information on how to book into one of the Endnote training workshops run by the Library, visit

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Primary vs. Secondary Sources | Difference & Examples

Published on June 20, 2018 by Raimo Streefkerk . Revised on January 23, 2023.

When you do research, you have to gather information and evidence from a variety of sources.

Primary sources provide raw information and first-hand evidence. Examples include interview transcripts, statistical data, and works of art. Primary research gives you direct access to the subject of your research.

Secondary sources provide second-hand information and commentary from other researchers. Examples include journal articles, reviews, and academic books . Thus, secondary research describes, interprets, or synthesizes primary sources.

Primary sources are more credible as evidence, but good research uses both primary and secondary sources.

Table of contents

What is a primary source, what is a secondary source, primary and secondary source examples, how to tell if a source is primary or secondary, primary vs secondary sources: which is better, frequently asked questions about primary and secondary sources.

A primary source is anything that gives you direct evidence about the people, events, or phenomena that you are researching. Primary sources will usually be the main objects of your analysis.

If you are researching the past, you cannot directly access it yourself, so you need primary sources that were produced at the time by participants or witnesses (e.g. letters, photographs, newspapers ).

If you are researching something current, your primary sources can either be qualitative or quantitative data that you collect yourself (e.g. through interviews , surveys , experiments ) or sources produced by people directly involved in the topic (e.g. official documents or media texts).

A secondary source is anything that describes, interprets, evaluates, or analyzes information from primary sources. Common examples include:

When you cite a secondary source, it’s usually not to analyze it directly. Instead, you’ll probably test its arguments against new evidence or use its ideas to help formulate your own.

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Examples of sources that can be primary or secondary.

A secondary source can become a primary source depending on your research question . If the person, context, or technique that produced the source is the main focus of your research, it becomes a primary source.


If you are researching the causes of World War II, a recent documentary about the war is a secondary source . But if you are researching the filmmaking techniques used in historical documentaries, the documentary is a primary source .

Reviews and essays

If your paper is about the novels of Toni Morrison, a magazine review of one of her novels is a secondary source . But if your paper is about the critical reception of Toni Morrison’s work, the review is a primary source .

Newspaper articles

If your aim is to analyze the government’s economic policy, a newspaper article about a new policy is a secondary source . But if your aim is to analyze media coverage of economic issues, the newspaper article is a primary source .

To determine if something can be used as a primary or secondary source in your research, there are some simple questions you can ask yourself:

Most research uses both primary and secondary sources. They complement each other to help you build a convincing argument. Primary sources are more credible as evidence, but secondary sources show how your work relates to existing research. Tertiary sources are often used in the first, exploratory stage of research.

What do you use primary sources for?

Primary sources are the foundation of original research. They allow you to:

If you don’t use any primary sources, your research may be considered unoriginal or unreliable.

What do you use secondary sources for?

Secondary sources are good for gaining a full overview of your topic and understanding how other researchers have approached it. They often synthesize a large number of primary sources that would be difficult and time-consuming to gather by yourself. They allow you to:

When you conduct a literature review or meta analysis, you can consult secondary sources to gain a thorough overview of your topic. If you want to mention a paper or study that you find cited in a secondary source, seek out the original source and cite it directly.

Remember that all primary and secondary sources must be cited to avoid plagiarism . You can use Scribbr’s free citation generator to do so!

Common examples of primary sources include interview transcripts , photographs, novels, paintings, films, historical documents, and official statistics.

Anything you directly analyze or use as first-hand evidence can be a primary source, including qualitative or quantitative data that you collected yourself.

Common examples of secondary sources include academic books, journal articles , reviews, essays , and textbooks.

Anything that summarizes, evaluates or interprets primary sources can be a secondary source. If a source gives you an overview of background information or presents another researcher’s ideas on your topic, it is probably a secondary source.

To determine if a source is primary or secondary, ask yourself:

Some types of source are nearly always primary: works of art and literature, raw statistical data, official documents and records, and personal communications (e.g. letters, interviews ). If you use one of these in your research, it is probably a primary source.

Primary sources are often considered the most credible in terms of providing evidence for your argument, as they give you direct evidence of what you are researching. However, it’s up to you to ensure the information they provide is reliable and accurate.

Always make sure to properly cite your sources to avoid plagiarism .

A fictional movie is usually a primary source. A documentary can be either primary or secondary depending on the context.

If you are directly analyzing some aspect of the movie itself – for example, the cinematography, narrative techniques, or social context – the movie is a primary source.

If you use the movie for background information or analysis about your topic – for example, to learn about a historical event or a scientific discovery – the movie is a secondary source.

Whether it’s primary or secondary, always properly cite the movie in the citation style you are using. Learn how to create an MLA movie citation or an APA movie citation .

Articles in newspapers and magazines can be primary or secondary depending on the focus of your research.

In historical studies, old articles are used as primary sources that give direct evidence about the time period. In social and communication studies, articles are used as primary sources to analyze language and social relations (for example, by conducting content analysis or discourse analysis ).

If you are not analyzing the article itself, but only using it for background information or facts about your topic, then the article is a secondary source.

Cite this Scribbr article

If you want to cite this source, you can copy and paste the citation or click the “Cite this Scribbr article” button to automatically add the citation to our free Citation Generator.

Streefkerk, R. (2023, January 23). Primary vs. Secondary Sources | Difference & Examples. Scribbr. Retrieved March 15, 2023, from

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secondary sources literature review

The Literature Review

About the literature review, articles and books in the library.

Related Guides and Sources

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A literature review is one of the first things done by any student or scholar who plans to pursue new knowledge or do research in most subject areas.  It involves identifying, locating, and examining information and publications on a particular topic.  A literature review allows a student or scholar to integrate and synthesize information on a topic and use it to support their research or creations.  It complements some forms of lab research so that a scholar understands what is known about their topic before or as they do their own research.  Literature reviews may be done as an assignment or a required part of a thesis or dissertation.  They can also be included in a grant or funding proposal to give support of an idea, and are frequently used in evidence-based practice in various fields.

Here are the reasons for doing a literature review:

A literature review is not:

A literature review can be very simple, where some articles, books or other information sources are identified, critiqued, and summarized.  It can also be very complex where its focus is very narrow or it condenses many information sources.  Regardless of its simplicity or complexity, it lays out a logical case to defend points or to come to conclusions on a given topic.

This Guide will help you with the following:

Originality statement:  Some of this content is from Guide to Science Information Sources (Research Guide) by K. Padron (2022) at .  Additional content has been added, revised, and repurposed in this Research Guide.

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Literature Review vs Systematic Review

Original Research Article/Primary Research Article

secondary sources literature review

Parts of the Article

secondary sources literature review

Sample Author Search in Google Scholar

This is a search for the author, U Fayyad. Search for your author by first initial and last name. Note the number of times the article is cited. Use SJSU GetText to retrieve the article.

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Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper

In the social sciences, a secondary source is usually a scholar book, journal article, or digital or print document that was created by someone who did not directly experience or participate in the events or conditions under investigation. Secondary sources are not evidence per se, but rather, provide an interpretation, analysis, or commentary derived from the content of primary source materials and/or other secondary sources.

Value of Secondary Sources

To do research, you must cite research. Primary sources do not represent research per se, but only the artifacts from which most research is derived. Therefore, the majority of sources in a literature review are secondary sources that present research findings, analysis, and the evaluation of other researcher's works.

Reviewing secondary source material can be of valu e in improving your overall research paper because secondary sources facilitate the communication of what is known about a topic. This literature also helps you understand the level of uncertainty about what is currently known and what additional information is needed from further research. It is important to note, however, that secondary sources are not the subject of your analysis. Instead, they represent various opinions, interpretations, and arguments about the research problem you are investigating--opinions, interpretations, and arguments with which you may either agree or disagree with as part of your own analysis of the literature.

Examples of secondary sources you could review as part of your overall study include:     * Bibliographies [also considered tertiary]     * Biographical works     * Books, other than fiction and autobiography     * Commentaries, criticisms     * Dictionaries, Encyclopedias [also considered tertiary]     * Histories     * Journal articles [depending on the discipline, they can be primary]     * Magazine and newspaper articles [this distinction varies by discipline]     * Textbooks [also considered tertiary]     * Web site [also considered primary]


Research Process

Primary Sources

Primary resources contain first-hand information, meaning that you are reading the author’s own account on a specific topic or event that s/he participated in. Examples of primary resources include scholarly research articles, books, and diaries. Primary sources such as research articles often do not explain terminology and theoretical principles in detail. Thus, readers of primary scholarly research should have foundational knowledge of the subject area. Use primary resources to obtain a first-hand account to an actual event and identify original research done in a field. For many of your papers, use of primary resources will be a requirement.

Examples of a primary source are:

How to locate primary research in NU Library:

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources describe, summarize, or discuss information or details originally presented in another source; meaning the author, in most cases, did not participate in the event. This type of source is written for a broad audience and will include definitions of discipline specific terms, history relating to the topic, significant theories and principles, and summaries of major studies/events as related to the topic. Use secondary sources to obtain an overview of a topic and/or identify primary resources. Refrain from including such resources in an annotated bibliography for doctoral level work unless there is a good reason.

Examples of a secondary source are:

Locate  secondary resources in NU Library within the following databases:

Beginning the Resarch Process Workshop

This workshop introduces to the beginning stages of the research process, focusing on identifying different types of information, as well as gathering background information through electronic books.

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secondary sources literature review

Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources

Sources of information or evidence are often categorized as primary, secondary, or tertiary material. These classifications are based on the originality of the material and the proximity of the source or origin. This informs the reader as to whether the author is reporting information that is first hand or is conveying the experiences and opinions of others which is considered second hand. Determining if a source is primary, secondary or tertiary can be tricky. Below you will find a description of the three categories of information and examples to help you make a determination.

Primary Sources

These sources are records of events or evidence as they are first described or actually happened without any interpretation or commentary. It is information that is shown for the first time or original materials on which other research is based.  Primary sources display original thinking, report on new discoveries, or share fresh information.

Examples of primary sources: Theses, dissertations, scholarly journal articles (research based), some government reports, symposia and conference proceedings, original artwork, poems, photographs, speeches, letters, memos, personal narratives, diaries, interviews, autobiographies, and correspondence.

Secondary Sources

These sources offer an analysis or restatement of primary sources. They often try to describe or explain primary sources. They tend to be works which summarize, interpret, reorganize, or otherwise provide an added value to a primary source.

Examples of Secondary Sources: Textbooks, edited works, books and articles that interpret or review research works, histories, biographies, literary criticism and interpretation, reviews of law and legislation, political analyses and commentaries.

Tertiary Sources

These are sources that index, abstract, organize, compile, or digest other sources. Some reference materials and textbooks are considered tertiary sources when their chief purpose is to list, summarize or simply repackage ideas or other information. Tertiary sources are usually not credited to a particular author.

Examples of Tertiary Sources: Dictionaries/encyclopedias (may also be secondary), almanacs, fact books, Wikipedia, bibliographies (may also be secondary), directories, guidebooks, manuals, handbooks, and textbooks (may be secondary), indexing and abstracting sources.


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Primary, Secondary, & Tertiary Sources: Home

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    Whereas secondary sources are any publshed or unpublished works that describe, summarise, analyse, evaluate, interpret or review primary source

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    Secondary sources provide second-hand information and commentary from other researchers. Examples include journal articles, reviews, and

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    Examples of Secondary Sources: Textbooks, edited works, books and articles that interpret or review research works, histories, biographies

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