by Matthew C. Baldwin



A "secondary source" is only considered "secondary" in comparison to "primary sources."

"Primary sources" provide the raw data for academic study. But "secondary sources" provide academic commentary on or information about the data.

Most of the time, scholars use the term "secondary source" to refer to books, sections of edited books, journal articles, encylopedia and dictionary entries, newspaper and magazine reports, etc.

The only real difference between "secondary sources" and "primary sources" lies in who created the source. "Secondary sources" are procued by other people who are working on the same topic that we are studying. "Primary sources" are produced by people who, in some sense, themselves belong to the topic we are studying.

Thus, one scholar's "secondary source" could be another scholar's "primary source." As an example, consider the case of Rudolf Bultmann. If you are writing a paper on the gospel of John, you might use Bultmann's commentary on John as a "secondary source." But, if you are writing a paper about Rudolf Bultmann himself, and his ideas about biblical interpretation, then Bultmann's commentary might become a "primary source" for your work.

Writing About Sources

Most of the time, you must go beyond merely citing sources. Sources are to be treated as conversation partners in your writing.

Be skeptical at first. Get to know your conversation partners. Don't waste time working with sources that aren't worth their salt. Avoid anonymous secondary sources, especially anonymous websites.

In the body of your paper, you should refer to the names of authors, and the titles of their articles and books. Occasionally, you may even need to discuss their qualifications. Very often, you need to discuss how the ideas of one author differ from the ideas of another author.

You should prefer to use paraphrase and summary rather than quotations. Use quotations mainly to highlight the characteristic language used by a particular author or source.

Quotations and paraphrases are never to be given without discussion and analysis.

Never use extended quotations from sources as a substitute for your own summary of an issue.

You should never give extended quotations from a source without identifying the author and the name of the source. Longer quotations simply must be discussed and analyzed in the text of your paper.

When paraphrasing the contents of a source, you still need to give credit in the body of your text to the source of your paraphrase.

How to Be A Critical Reader: Questions to Ask When Reading Secondary Sources

  1. Who is the author?

    This may be the most important question to ask, and you need to know more than a name to answer it well.

    This question is really about a scholar's identity and qualifications and reliability. Be able to name the author's correct discipline, specialization, characteristic ideas and preoccupations and, if you can figure it out, her or his allegiances and implied commitments.

    How can you get this information? You can use WorldCat, JSTOR, Ebsco, and other academic databases to learn more about what kinds of other work the scholar has produced. You can read reviews of the author's books, if available. If the author is a living, working professor, you can find the author's website by searching for it on google. You can learn about the school she or he works at. You can visit the website of the publisher responsible for the source to learn about it.

    What should you do with this information? Use it to be a more critical reader! While you are reading the source, use this information to ask further critical questions: how might the author's perspective, allegiances, place of work, and characteristic ideas affect his or her work? does it seem to affect his work? what reasons might there be to trust this author? what reasons might there be to doubt the author's work? how does the author's reliability on this topic compare to other sources you might consult? is this person really the best possible source of information on the topic in question?

  2. What is the main topic of the source?

    Be able to discuss the main focus of the secondary source in specific terms, by naming the particular person or people or ideas or objects or events which are discussed in the text. Except in the most basic sources of information, oftentimes the main topic is actually an academic "problem" or "question." Try to identify what problem the author is working on in the text. Ask yourself, what question is the author striving to answer?

  3. What is the author arguing against?

    Oftentimes, an author intends to correct some misunderstanding which is promoted by other writers, or which is common among the readers in his audience. It is helpful to identify how the author characterizes the things she or he takes to be wrong. This helps us understand what the author is trying to convey with his or her writing.

  4. What is the main point of the source?

    It is necessary to identify the main purpose or main claim of the source. This helps you understand why the author has structured the source as she or he has, and helps make sense of the author's argument. In most academic writing, the author is trying to persuade the audience of something. You need to understand what the author's purpose in writing truly is.

  5. What is the structure of the source?

    Familiarize yourself with the overall plan of the source. Look at its subsections, and at the flow of information in each subsection. Try to relate the structure to the overall point of the essay.

  6. What kinds of argument does the author use?


  7. For any given claim in the source, how does the author support the claim?

    This is one of the most important tools in the critical reader's arsenal.

  8. What primary sources are referred to by the author?

    In other words, what types of "raw data" does the author use as evidence in his or her argument? The point of this is to keep the focus on the raw data of your study. The author can help you locate primary sources for your work about which you were previously uninformed. You can also critically evaluate claims of the author by seeing whether they are truly supported by primary sources of evidence or not. How many different type of primary source material are used by the author? Are there primary sources which you know about that the author might have overlooked?

  9. How does the author treat the primary sources of evidence?

    Every "primary source" of data needs to be interpreted in order to serve in an argument. What interpretive "moves" does the author make in using primary sources? What kind of authority does the author ascribe to his or her "primary sources" of data? Does the author seem to use the primary sources with skill, or does her or his expertise seem questionable?

  10. What secondary sources are used by the author?

    A scholar may be defined, in part, by the company she keeps. Does the author refer to other, reputable scholars to back up his or her claim? Does the author discuss the controversies over the points she or he is making? If you are reading a particularly reliable secondary source, then, by paying attention to the author's references to secondary sources, especially in footnotes and endnotes, but also in-text, you can learn more about the important work that has been done on a particular topic, and you can expand your own potential bibliography exponentially.

  11. What about the source do you find convincing or important?

    Try to list the subjects on which you find the source to be particularly persuasive or informative. If the author has made particularly important points which you think are either unique to the author, or simply brand new to you, make a special note of these.

  12. What do you find unconvincing?

    Try to list the subjects and subtopics where you think the author has not made his or her case, or where you think she or he may actually be wrong. Try to write out your reasons for disagreeing or being unconvinced by the points raised by the author.

  13. What further questions has the source raised for you?

    If you've been paying attention, then the source has likely mentioned some subtopics and subjects about which you are relatively well informed, and others about which you are relatively uninformed. Try to make a list of subjects and subtopics which the source treats about which you would like to know more. Now you can follow up on these new questions with further research. GOOD LUCK!