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PHIL 231: Media Ethics: Primary vs Secondary Sources

Spring 2015/ Dr. Achim Koeddermann

Primary vs. Secondary Sources

When evaluating the quality of the information you are using, it is helpful to be able to identify whether you are using a Primary or Secondary source. In doing so, you will be able to recognize whether the author is reporting their first-hand experience(s) or relying on the views of others. It is also important to be aware of the differences, as you professor may want you to utilize more primary sources and fewer secondary ones, and you should be aware of the differences in order to make the correct choice.

Primary Source - this is a first-person account by someone who experienced or witnessed an event. The document has not been previously published or interpreted by anyone else. 

Examples include: 

  • first-person account of an event
  • first publication of a scientific study
  • speech or lecture
  • original artwork
  • handwritten manuscript
  • letters between two people
  • a dairy or journal
  • historical documents (The Bill of Rights)
  • newspaper stories
  • audio or video recordings

Secondary Source - this is a source that is one step removed from the (primary) original source. The author of a secondary source reexamines, interprets and forms conclusions based on the information that is conveyed in the primary source.

Examples include:

  • newspaper reporting on a scientific study
  • journal articles interpreting previous findings
  • reviews of books, music, art shows, etc.
  • biographies
  • textbooks
  • encyclopedias

Free Primary Texts Online

There are many sources of complete (out of copyright, public domain) philosophy texts available online such as:

Project BartlebySearchable. Includes reference, verse, fiction, non-fiction. Includes the Harvard Classics versions of Plato's Apology, Phædo and Crito and Antigone by Sophocles.

Online books pageOver 1,000,000  public domain books available full text online. Search/browse by author, title, subject. Provides several editions of Plato's Republic (which includes Plato's allegory of the cave)

Online Library of LiteratureIncludes Candide by Voltaire.

ALEX catalog of electronic texts"Public domain documents from American and English literature as well as Western philosophy". Search/browse by author, title, date. Also possible to search the content.

Project GutenbergAbout 35,000 books included. Links to over 100,000 books via Project  Gutenberg Partners, Affiliates, and Resources