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Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources

Search catalog, what are the differences.

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.

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.

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.

differentiate between secondary and tertiary sources of literature review

Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Sources

Defining primary, secondary and tertiary sources, primary, secondary and tertiary sources in disciplines, video: the information landscape, video: primary, secondary, and tertiary sources.

Primary sources provide first-hand observations or direct evidence concerning a topic under investigation. They are created by witnesses or recorders at or near the time of the event. They have not been filtered through further interpretation or evaluation. 

Primary sources may include

  • Original Documents: diaries, speeches, letters, interview transcripts, news footage, autobiographies, reports, census records, data from an experiment
  • Creative Works: poetry, plays, novels, music scores, films, paintings
  • Objects: clothing, buildings, tools, furniture

Secondary sources are works that analyze, assess or interpret a historical event, era or phenomenon.  They may use primary sources to to write a review, critique or interpretation often well after the event.

Secondary sources may include

  • journal articles, editorial articles, literacy criticism, book reviews, biographies, textbooks

Tertiary Sources are those used to identify and locate primary and secondary sources.

Tertiary sources may include

  • Reference Works: encyclopedias, abstracts
  • Lists or Collections: bibliographies, finding aids
  • Search Tools: library database or catalog, indexes

Using the Source

What is considered a primary source can vary depending on how you are using the source. 

For instance, if you were analyzing how authors of popular magazine articles discussed the Boeing 737 MAX crashes, the magazine articles would serve as your primary sources.  However, if you cited from a magazine article for your research paper on airline safety , the magazine would serve as a secondary source.

Different Disciplines

Disciplines may be more or less likely to work with specific types of primary sources. See this chart for examples.  If you unsure what is considered a primary source in your discipline, consult with your faculty instructor.

This video provides excellent definitions and examples of primary, secondary and tertiary sources.

(1:19) University of Huddersfield Library

Beyond definitions of primary, secondary and tertiary source types, this video provides useful examples of what would be primary, secondary and tertiary sources for research questions in different disciplines. See 1:48.

(2:33) Suffolk County Community College (SCCC) Library

  • Last Updated: Aug 5, 2022 3:01 PM
  • URL: https://libguides.ucmerced.edu/source-types

University of California, Merced

Grad Coach

Primary, Secondary & Tertiary Sources

What they are and how they compare (with examples)

By: Derek Jansen (MBA) | Expert Reviewed By: Kerryn Warren (PhD) | January 2023

If you’re new to the wild world of research, you’re bound to encounter the terrible twins, “ primary source ” and “ secondary source ” sooner or later. With any luck, “ tertiary sources ” will get thrown into the mix too! In this post, we’ll unpack both what this terminology means and how to apply it to your research project.

Overview: Source Types

  • Primary sources
  • Examples of primary sources
  • Pros and cons of primary data
  • Secondary sources
  • Examples of secondary sources
  • Pros and cons of secondary data
  • Tertiary sources
  • Summary & recap

What are primary sources?

Simply put, primary sources (also referred to as primary data) are the original raw materials, evidence or data collected in a study. Primary sources can include interview transcripts, quantitative survey data, as well as other media that provide firsthand accounts of events or phenomena. Primary sources are often considered to be the purest sources because they provide direct, unfiltered data which has not been processed or interpreted in any way.

In addition to the above, examples of primary sources can include

  • Results from a social media poll
  • Letters written by a historical figure
  • Photographs taken during a specific time period
  • Government documents such as birth certificates and census records
  • Artefacts like clothing and tools from past cultures

Naturally, working with primary data has both benefits and drawbacks. Some of the main advantages include

  • Purity : primary sources provide firsthand accounts of events, ideas, and experiences, which means you get access to the rawest, purest form of data.
  • Perspective : primary sources allow you to gain a deeper understanding of the perspectives of the people who created them, providing insights into how different groups of people viewed an event or phenomenon.
  • Richness : primary data often provide a wealth of detail and nuance that can be missed in secondary data (we’ll cover that shortly). This can provide you with a more complete and nuanced understanding of their topic.

On the flip side, some of the main disadvantages include

  • Bias : given their “rawness”, primary sources can often contain biases that can skew or limit your understanding of the issue at hand.
  • Inaccessibility : sometimes, collecting fresh primary data can be difficult or even impossible. For example, photographs held in private collections or letters written in a language that you’re not fluent in.
  • Fragility : physical artefacts such as manuscripts may be fragile and require special handling, which can make them difficult for you to access or study.
  • Limited scope : primary sources often only provide a glimpse of a particular event, person, or period of time, so you may need to rely on multiple primary sources to gain a more complete understanding of a topic.

As you can see, the strengths and weaknesses of primary sources are oftentimes two sides of the same coin . For example, primary data allow you to gain insight into peoples’ unique perspectives, but at the same time, it bakes in a significant level of each participant’s personal bias. So, it’s important to carefully consider what your research aim is and whether it lends itself to this type of data source.

Now that you’ve got a clearer picture of what primary sources/data are, let’s take a look at secondary sources.

differentiate between secondary and tertiary sources of literature review

What are secondary sources?

Secondary sources are materials that provide an analysis or interpretation of primary sources (primary data). For example, secondary sources of information can include books, journal articles and documentaries . Unlike primary sources (which are raw and uninterpreted), secondary sources provide a distilled, interpreted view of the data.

Other examples of secondary sources include

  • A book that provides an analysis of an event
  • A biography of a pop icon
  • An article that provides an interpretation of a public opinion poll
  • A blog post that reviews and compares the performance of competing products

As with primary sources, secondary sources have their own set of pros and cons. Some of the main advantages include:

  • Convenience: secondary sources are often easier to access and use than primary sources, as they are widely available in libraries, journal databases, etc.
  • Interpretation and synthesis : secondary sources provide a synthesis of the topic of interest, which can help you to quickly understand the most important takeaways from a data set.
  • Time-saving : secondary sources can save you time, as you don’t need to analyse primary sources yourself – you can just read summaries or interpretations provided by experts in the field.

At the same time, it’s important to be aware of the disadvantages of secondary sources. Some of the main ones to consider are

  • Distance from original sources : secondary sources are based on primary data, but the information has been filtered through the lens of the author, which will naturally carry some level of bias and perhaps even a hidden agenda.
  • Limited context: secondary sources may not provide the same level of contextual information or detail as primary sources, which can limit your understanding of the situation and contribute toward a warped understanding.
  • Inaccuracies : since secondary sources are the product of human efforts, they may contain inaccuracies or errors, especially if the author has misinterpreted primary data.
  • Outdated information : secondary sources may be based on primary sources that are no longer valid or accurate, or they may not take into account more recent research or discoveries.

It’s important to mention that primary and secondary data are not mutually exclusive . In other words, it doesn’t always need to be one or the other. Secondary sources can be used to supplement primary data by providing additional information or context for a particular topic.

For example, if you were researching Martin Luther King Jr., your primary source could be transcripts of the speeches he gave during the civil rights movement. To supplement this information, you could then use secondary sources such as biographies written about him or newspaper articles from the time period in which he was active.

So, once again, it’s important to think about what you’re trying to achieve with your research – that is to say, what are your research aims? As with all methodological choices, your decision to make use of primary or secondary data (or both), needs to be informed by your overall research aims .

Before we wrap up though, it’s important to look at one more source type – tertiary sources.

Need a helping hand?

differentiate between secondary and tertiary sources of literature review

What are tertiary sources?

Last but not least, we’ve got tertiary sources . Simply put, tertiary sources are materials that provide a general overview of a topic . They often summarise or synthesise information from a combination of primary and secondary sources, such as books, articles, and other documents.

Some examples of tertiary sources include

  • Encyclopedias
  • Study guides
  • Dictionaries

Tertiary sources can be useful when you’re just starting to learn about a completely new topic , as they provide an overview of the subject matter without getting too in-depth into specific details. For example, if you’re researching the history of World War II, but don’t know much about it yet, reading an encyclopedia article (or Wikipedia article) on the war would be helpful in providing you with some basic facts and background information.

Tertiary sources are also useful in terms of providing a starting point for citations to primary and secondary source material which can help guide your search for more detailed, credible information on a particular topic. Additionally, these types of resources may also contain lists of related topics or keywords which you can use to find more information regarding your topic of interest.

Importantly, while tertiary sources are a valuable starting point for your research, they’re not ideal sources to cite in your dissertation, thesis or research project. Instead, you should aim to cite high-quality, credible secondary sources such as peer-reviewed journal articles and research papers . So, remember to only use tertiary sources as a starting point. Don’t make the classic mistake of citing Wikipedia as your main source!

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Let’s recap

In this post, we’ve explored the trinity of sources: primary, secondary and tertiary.

  • Primary sources include the original raw evidence or data that you collect yourself in a study. For example, interview transcripts or statistical data.
  • Secondary sources include distilled analyses and interpretations of primary data that someone else collected in their study. For example, journal articles and critical analysis pieces.
  • Tertiary sources include materials that provide a general overview of a topic. For example, encyclopedias, study guides and handbooks.
  • Each source type has its own set of strengths and weaknesses , and can play a different role within a research project.
  • Primary sources and secondary sources are not necessarily mutually exclusive – they can work together to provide a comprehensive view.
  • It’s important to ensure that your choice of source (or sources) is guided by and aligned with your research aims .

If you’d like to learn more about primary and secondary research, be sure to check out the rest of the Grad Coach blog here . Alternatively, if you’re looking for hands-on help with your project, take a look at our 1-on-1 private coaching service .

differentiate between secondary and tertiary sources of literature review

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Literature Reviews: Types of Literature

  • Library Basics
  • 1. Choose Your Topic
  • How to Find Books
  • Types of Clinical Study Designs

Types of Literature

  • 3. Search the Literature
  • 4. Read & Analyze the Literature
  • 5. Write the Review
  • Keeping Track of Information
  • Style Guides
  • Books, Tutorials & Examples

Different types of publications have different characteristics.

Primary Literature Primary sources means original studies, based on direct observation, use of statistical records, interviews, or experimental methods, of actual practices or the actual impact of practices or policies. They are authored by researchers, contains original research data, and are usually published in a peer-reviewed journal. Primary literature may also include conference papers, pre-prints, or preliminary reports. Also called empirical research .

Secondary Literature Secondary literature consists of interpretations and evaluations that are derived from or refer to the primary source literature. Examples include review articles (such as meta-analysis and systematic reviews) and reference works. Professionals within each discipline take the primary literature and synthesize, generalize, and integrate new research.

Tertiary Literature Tertiary literature consists of a distillation and collection of primary and secondary sources such as textbooks, encyclopedia articles, and guidebooks or handbooks. The purpose of tertiary literature is to provide an overview of key research findings and an introduction to principles and practices within the discipline.

Adapted from the Information Services Department of the Library of the Health Sciences-Chicago , University of Illinois at Chicago.

Types of Scientific Publications

These examples and descriptions of publication types will give you an idea of how to use various works and why you would want to write a particular kind of paper.

  • Scholarly article aka empirical article
  • Review article
  • Conference paper

Scholarly (aka empirical) article -- example

Empirical studies use data derived from observation or experiment. Original research papers (also called primary research articles) that describe empirical studies and their results are published in academic journals.  Articles that report empirical research contain different sections which relate to the steps of the scientific method.

      Abstract - The abstract provides a very brief summary of the research.

     Introduction - The introduction sets the research in a context, which provides a review of related research and develops the hypotheses for the research.

     Method - The method section describes how the research was conducted.

     Results - The results section describes the outcomes of the study.

     Discussion - The discussion section contains the interpretations and implications of the study.

     References - A references section lists the articles, books, and other material cited in the report.

Review article -- example

A review article summarizes a particular field of study and places the recent research in context. It provides an overview and is an excellent introduction to a subject area. The references used in a review article are helpful as they lead to more in-depth research.

Many databases have limits or filters to search for review articles. You can also search by keywords like review article, survey, overview, summary, etc.

Conference proceedings, abstracts and reports -- example

Conference proceedings, abstracts and reports are not usually peer-reviewed.  A conference article is similar to a scholarly article insofar as it is academic. Conference articles are published much more quickly than scholarly articles. You can find conference papers in many of the same places as scholarly articles.

How Do You Identify Empirical Articles?

To identify an article based on empirical research, look for the following characteristics:

     The article is published in a peer-reviewed journal .

     The article includes charts, graphs, or statistical analysis .

     The article is substantial in size , likely to be more than 5 pages long.

     The article contains the following parts (the exact terms may vary): abstract, introduction, method, results, discussion, references .

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Identifying Information Sources

What's the difference, primary sources and research, secondary sources and research, tertiary sources, comparison chart.

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  • Primary Sources for Historical Research: A Library Guide by Reference Librarians Last Updated Mar 28, 2024 77 views this year
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Need to Ask a Question?

Telling the difference between primary, secondary, and tertiary sources can often be confusing because the difference is more about the content of the source than the published format. The format may be a first indicator of whether or not a source is primary, but evaluating the content will be the ultimate judgement call.

Primary and secondary sources often differ based on the academic discipline.

This page will give you some guidance on deciding whether a source can be considered primary or not. Many of the formats listed on this guide will exist in both physical and digital modes.

To start, the following video from the Australian National University Library gives an excellent explanation of the different contexts in which sources can be considered primary, secondary, or tertiary.

Primary sources   are the original documents of an event or discovery.  Primary sources are also records of events as they are first described. They are often considered the most credible sources of evidence and are complimented by secondary which will analyze and give context to primary sources.

Some examples of primary sources are:

  • diaries and letters
  • academic articles reporting NEW data and findings - these are often peer reviewed and called empirical research
  • works of literature (poems, novels, etc.)
  • works of fine art (paintings, sculpture, pottery, etc.)
  • works of performance art (music, fictional films, plays, musicals, operas, etc.
  • official records from a government, judicial court, or company
  • oral histories
  • autobiographies
  • eyewitness new reports*

*Newspaper articles that report on a recent event can be primary sources, but articles that rehash previous events are not primary sources, unless they add new information to the story.

Where do I find primary sources?

It depends on your discipline, but here are are some places to start.

  • Academic journals are the main place that most researchers will initially publish the results of their research and/or experiments, though some disciplines will favor book length publications.
  • Creative works like novels, films, music, and other works of art can often be found through the library catalog or special databases from that discipline.
  • Historical sources like newspapers, diaries, letters, oral histories, and more can be found through archival collections, like the Genesee Historical Collections Center and the many online archival databases we subscribe to.
  • The library's homepage search box or subject specific database are great places to start searching!
  • Library Homepage
  • Thompson Library Research Guides All of the library's research and course guides. Find databases and resources on specific disciplines.

Secondary sources   offer an analysis or a restatement of an event or discovery described in primary sources. They interpret, explain, critique, or otherwise analyze primary sources. Some secondary sources are used to persuade the reader and may be considered less objective. 

Examples of secondary sources include:

  • criticism of a work of art, music, or fiction
  • publications that discuss or analyze a topic
  • articles and editorials that interpret or review research works or other primary sources*
  • some nonfiction books written for general public for entertainment purposes rather than scholarship
  • some textbooks

*Many academic articles include short literature reviews to establish a starting place or a jumping off point for their own, original research; these are still considered primary sources. However, articles that only review or analyze previously published articles  and contain no new research are secondary sources; these articles are called systematic literature reviews and can be good sources of information about the state of research on a certain topic.

Where do I find secondary sources?

  • Academic journals will often publish review articles or publications that critically analyze .
  • News sources that offer editorials

Tertiary sources offer a summary or restatement of facts and research from both primary and secondary sources. The main difference between secondary and tertiary sources is that tertiary sources offer no new information and no analysis of the information from primary and secondary sources.

Tertiary sources are often great places to collect background information and to help locate primary and secondary research.

Examples of tertiary sources include:

  • dictionaries
  • encyclopedias
  • bibliographies

Where do I find tertiary sources?

The following databases contain reference sources like encyclopedia, dictionaries, and handbooks.

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Authoritative coverage of thousands of topics in all areas of study.

Encyclopaedia Britannica's latest article database (including hundreds of articles not found in the print edition), Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary and Thesaurus, and the Britannica Book of the Year (1994-present), with thousands of web links selected by editors. Updated daily.

Recent editions of many major reference books.

Over 400 dictionary, language reference, and subject reference works published by Oxford University Press

Fully indexed, cross-searchable database of over 400 dictionary, language reference, and subject reference works published by Oxford University Press. Includes subject reference works in the humanities, social sciences, and science--both "Quick Reference" titles (concise dictionaries, etc.) and larger "Reference Library" titles (multi-volume encyclopedias, etc.).

A searchable collection of over 150 scholarly encyclopedias, handbooks, and reference books in the social sciences.

Covers anthropology, communication, education, geography, health, history, law, management, politics, psychology, and sociology.

Concise introductions to a diverse range of subject areas in the sciences, social sciences, and arts and humanities.

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  • Last Updated: Mar 13, 2024 11:19 AM
  • URL: https://libguides.umflint.edu/idinfosources

Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources in the Health Sciences.

Phillips-Wangensteen Building.

Primary Sources

Primary sources (or primary research) presents the immediate results of original research activities and/or new scientific discoveries..  It often includes hypotheses, experiments, analysis of data collected in the field or laboratory and a conclusion.   Primary sources are original materials/information on which other research is based.

These include:

  • Journals or Periodicals : main type of publication in which scientific research is reported. 
  • Theses : detailed accounts of research conducted for the awarding of higher academic degrees.  In many cases, it will also be later reported in a condensed form as a journal article.
  • Conferences : Papers presented at conferences may or may not be subject to editorial scrutiny. Conference papers may not published at all, published only in abstract form, published in advance of the conference as a preprint, published in book form, or as a special issue of a journal.
  • Reports : individual publications reporting research. They may report internal research within an organization, or research done by an individual or organization under contract to a client. They may be freely available, available only to members of an organization, only available by purchase, or published in a journal article. 
  • Patents : provides research information on new products or processes. Once published, patent information is freely available, but rarely republished in journal articles.

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources are those that discuss the original research of others. Secondary sources list, summarize, compare, analyses, interprets, re-packages, and evaluates primary information and studies so as to draw conclusions on or present current state of knowledge in a discipline or subject. Secondary sources will include a reference list to direct you to the primary research reported in the article.

They include:

  • Review Journals  : These generally start with Annual Review of …, Advances in …, Current Opinion in …
  •   Article Reviews  : Articles that summarize the current literature on a specific topic.
  •   Textbooks  : These can be either specialized to a narrow topic or a more boarder overview.
  •   Data Compilations  :  Statistical databases (SEERS), Vital & Health Statistics, etc.
  • Article Indexes/Databases : These can be abstracting or citation (e.g. Biological Abstracts/MEDLINE).

They also include:

  • Reviews, systematic reviews, meta-analysis
  • Newsletters and professional news sources
  • Practice guidelines & standards
  • Clinical care notes
  • Patient education Information
  • Government & legal Information

Tertiary Sources

Tertiary sources consist of primary and secondary source information which has been collected and distilled. They present summaries of or an introduction to the current state of research on a topic, summarize or condense information from primary and secondary sources, or provide a list of primary and secondary sources. These include:

  • Encyclopedias

Research Information Timeline

Tutorial: Identifying Primary, Secondary & Tertiary Sources in the Sciences (CSB/SJU Libraries): (2021 September 3): 3:46 min.

Primary and Secondary Literature in the Sciences: An Introduction (Egan Library): (2021 February 4): 4:04 min.

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Another information category is called publication mode and has to do with whether the information is:

  • Firsthand information (information in its original form, not translated or published in another form).
  • Secondhand information (a restatement, analysis, or interpretation of original information).
  • Thirdhand information (a summary or repackaging of original information, often based on secondary information that has been published).

The three labels for information sources in this category are, respectively, primary sources, secondary sources, and tertiary sources . Here are examples to illustrate the first- handedness, second-handedness, and third-handedness of information:

When you make distinctions between primary, secondary, and tertiary sources, you are relating the information itself to the context in which it was created. Understanding that relationship is an important skill that you’ll need in college, as well as in the workplace. Noting the relationship between creation and context helps us understand the “big picture” in which information operates and helps us figure out which information we can depend on. That’s a big part of thinking critically, a major benefit of actually becoming an educated person.

As a reminder, recall one of the frames of the Framework for Information Literacy is Authority is Constructed and Contextual . Information does not occur in a vacuum, but within a context that impacts its meaning. Part of that context will be how you as an information consumer will process the different facets in which that information exists. So, with this in mind, recognize that primary sources as defined below are not cut and dried, nor black or white. For example, to a historian, an image or a representation of a piece of sculpture might be considered a primary source for the purposes of historical analysis; however, to a sculpture or an archaeologist, anything short of the physical piece of sculpture itself would not be considered a primary source. So, in this case, the “context” to consider is how the source of information itself is perceived by a particular discipline (history vs. sculpture or archaeology). More on this below when we consider the “format” of a source.

Primary Sources – Because it is in its original form, the information in primary sources has reached us from its creators without going through any filter. We get it firsthand. Here are some examples that are often used as primary sources:

  • Any literary work, including novels, plays, and poems.
  • Breaking news (first formal documentation of event–remember the Information Cycle).
  • Advertisements.
  • Music and dance performances.
  • Eyewitness accounts, including photographs and recorded interviews.
  • Blog entries that are autobiographical.
  • Scholarly blogs that provide data or are highly theoretical, even though they contain no autobiography.
  • Artifacts such as tools, clothing, or other objects.
  • Original documents such as tax returns, marriage licenses, and transcripts of trials.
  • Websites, although many are secondary.
  • Correspondence, including email.
  • Records of organizations and government agencies.
  • Journal articles that report original research for the first time (at least the parts about the new research, plus their data).

Secondary Source – These sources are sources about the sources, such as analysis or interpretation of the original information, the primary source. Thus, the information comes to us secondhand, or through at least one filter. Here are some examples that are often used as secondary sources:

  • Nonfiction books and magazine articles except autobiography.
  • An article or website that critiques a novel, play, painting, or piece of music.
  • An article or web site that synthesizes expert opinion and several eyewitness accounts for a new understanding of an event.
  • The literature review portion of a scholarly journal article.

Tertiary Source – These sources further repackage the original information because they index, condense, or summarize the original.

Typically, by the time tertiary sources are developed, there have been many secondary sources prepared on their subjects, and you can think of tertiary sources as information that comes to us “third-hand,” that is, pre -processed. Tertiary sources are usually publications that you are not intended to read from cover to cover but to dip in and out of for the information you need. You can think of them as a good place for background information to start your research but a bad place to end up. Here are some examples that are often used as tertiary sources, which are also considered “reference sources” in the library world:

  • Dictionaries.
  • Guide books, like the MLA Handbook
  • Survey articles.
  • Bibliographies.
  • Encyclopedias, including Wikipedia.
  • Most textbooks, including the one you are now reading.

Tertiary sources are usually not acceptable as cited sources in college research projects because they are so far removed from firsthand information. That’s why most professors don’t want you to use Wikipedia as a citable source: the information in Wikipedia is far from original information. Other people have considered it, decided what they think about it, rearranged it, and summarized it–all of which is actually what your professors want you , not another author, to do with information in your research projects.

The Details Are Tricky — A few things about primary or secondary sources might surprise you:

  • Sources have the potential of becoming primary rather than always exist as primary sources.

It’s easy to think that it is the format of primary sources that makes them primary. But that’s not all that matters. When you see lists like the one above of sources that are often used as primary sources, it’s wise to remember that the ones listed are not automatically already primary sources. Firsthand sources get that designation only when researchers actually find their information relevant and use it.

For instance: Here is an illustration of the frame, Authority is Constructed and Contextual. Records that could be relevant to those studying government are created every day by federal, state, county, and city governments as they operate. But until the raw data are actually used by a researcher, they cannot be considered primary sources. How this data is used is what gives these sources the designation, and authority, as primary sources.

Another example that references the frame, Authority is Constructed and Contextual : A diary about his flying missions kept by an American helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War is not a primary source until, say, a researcher uses it in her study of how the war was carried out. But it will never be a primary source for a researcher studying the U.S. public’s reaction to the war because it does not contain information relevant to that study.

  • Primary sources, even eyewitness accounts, are not necessarily accurate. Their accuracy has to be evaluated, just like that of all sources.
  • Something that is usually considered a secondary source can be considered a primary source, depending on the research project and the context in which something is used .

Here is another example where the context of the use of the source dictates whether or not the source is primary or secondary. For instance, movie reviews are usually considered secondary sources. But if your research project is about the effect movie reviews have on ticket sales, the movie reviews you study would become primary sources.

  • Deciding whether to consider a journal article a primary or a secondary source can be complicated for at least two reasons.

First, scholarly journal articles that report new research for the first time are usually based on data. So some disciplines consider the data to be the primary source, and the journal article that describes and analyzes them is considered a secondary source.

However, particularly in the sciences, the original researcher might find it difficult or impossible (he or she might not be allowed) to share the data. So sometimes you have nothing more firsthand than the journal article, which argues for calling it the relevant primary source because it’s the closest thing that exists to the data.

Second, even scholarly journal articles that announce new research for the first time usually contain more than data. They also typically contain secondary source elements, such as a literature review, bibliography, and sections on data analysis and interpretation. So they can actually be a mix of primary and secondary elements. Even so, in some disciplines, a journal article that announces new research findings for the first time is considered to be, as a whole, a primary source for the researchers using it.

ACTIVITY: Under What Circumstances?

Instructions: Look at each of the sources listed below and think of circumstances under which each could become a primary source. (There are probably many potential circumstances for each.) So just imagine you are a researcher with projects that would make each item firsthand information that is relevant to your work. What kind of project would make each of the following sources relevant firsthand information? Our answers are at the bottom of the page, but remember that there are many more–including the ones you think of that we didn’t!

  • Fallingwater, a Pennsylvania home designed and constructed by Frank Lloyd Wright in the 1930s.
  • Poet W.H. Auden’s elegy for Y.S. Yeats.
  • An arrowhead made by (Florida) Seminole Native Americans but found at Flint Ridge outside Columbus, Ohio.
  • E-mail between the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, and her staff about North Korea.
  • A marriage license.

Despite their fluidity, what primary sources usually offer is too good not to consider using because:

  • They are original. This unfiltered, firsthand information is not available anywhere else.
  • Their creator was a type of person unlike others in your research project, and you want to include that perspective.
  • Their creator was present at an event and shares an eyewitness account.
  • They are objects that existed at the particular time of the project you are studying.

Particularly in humanities courses, your professor may require you to use a certain number of primary sources for your project. In other courses, particularly in the sciences, you may be required to use only primary sources.

What is considered primary and secondary sources can vary from discipline to discipline. If you are required to use primary sources for your research project, before getting too deep into your project, check with your professor to make sure he or she agrees with your choices. After all, it’s your professor who will be grading your project. A librarian, too, can verify your choices. Just remember to take a copy of your assignment with you when you ask, because the librarian will want to see the original assignment. After all, that’s a primary source!

POSSIBLE AnswerS TO ACTIVITY: Under What Circumstances?

  • You are doing a study of the entrances Wright designed for homes, which were smaller than other architects of the time typically designed entrances.
  • Your research project is about the Auden-Yeats relationship.
  • Your research project is about trade among 19th century Native Americans east of the Mississippi River.
  • Your research project is on how Ambassador Haley conveyed a decision about North Korea to her staff.
  • You are writing about the life of a person who claimed to have married several times, and you need more than her statements about when those marriages took place and to whom.
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Primary v Secondary Sources

The Standard Definition

In historical writing, a primary source is a document or physical object which was written or created during the time under study. These sources were present during an experience or time period and offer an inside view of a particular event. Some types of primary sources include: * ORIGINAL DOCUMENTS (excerpts or translations acceptable): Diaries, speeches, manuscripts, letters, interviews, news film footage, autobiographies, official records * CREATIVE WORKS: Poetry, drama, novels, music, art * RELICS OR ARTIFACTS: Pottery, furniture, clothing, buildings Examples of primary sources include: * Diary of Anne Frank - Experiences of a Jewish family during WWII * The Constitution of Canada - Canadian History * A journal article reporting NEW research or findings * Weavings and pottery - Native American history * Plato's Republic - Women in Ancient Greece What is a secondary source? A secondary source interprets and analyzes primary sources. These sources are one or more steps removed from the event. Secondary sources may have pictures, quotes or graphics of primary sources in them. Some types of seconday sources include: * PUBLICATIONS: Textbooks, magazine articles, histories, criticisms, commentaries, encyclopedias Examples of secondary sources include: * A journal/magazine article which interprets or reviews previous findings * A history textbook * A book about the effects of WWI Search by keyword for Primary Sources in the Main Catalog You can search the Main Catalog to find direct references to primary source material. Perform a keyword search for your topic and add one of the words below: (these are several examples of words that would identify a source as primary) * charters * correspondence * diaries * early works * interviews * manuscripts * oratory * pamphlets * personal narratives * sources * speeches * letters * documents

Another Possible Usage

PRIMARY SOURCE (more frequently PRIMARY TEXT) is sometimes used in a different sense in some types of classes. In a literature class, for example, the primary source might be a novel about which you are writing, and secondary sources those sources also writing about that novel (i.e., literary criticism). However, if you were writing about the literary criticism itself and making an argument about literary theory and the practice of literary criticism, some would use the term PRIMARY SOURCE to refer to the criticism about which you are writing, and secondary sources other sources also making theoretical arguments about the practice of literary criticism. In this second sense of primary source, whatever you are primarily writing ABOUT becomes the primary source, and secondary sources are those sources also writing about that source. Often this will be called the PRIMARY TEXT, but some people do use primary source with this meaning.

Tertiary Sources

Just so you can keep up with all the scholarly jargon about sources, a tertiary source is a source that builds upon secondary sources to provide information. The most common example is an encyclopedia. Consider a particular revolution as an historical event. All the documents from the time become primary sources. All the historians writing later produce secondary sources. Then someone reads those secondary sources and summarizes them in an encyclopedia article, which becomes a tertiary source. If someone then collected a bibliography of encyclopedia articles on the topic, that might be a quarternary source, but at that point the whole thing just becomes silly.

Evaluating Sources

  • Critically Analyzing Information Sources Some questions to consider when evaluating sources.
  • Distinguishing Scholarly Journals from other Periodicals You need a scholarly journal article. How do you know if you have one?

Evaluating Websites

FROM: Kapoun, Jim. "Teaching undergrads WEB evaluation: A guide for library instruction." C&RL News (July/August 1998): 522-523.

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Conducting a Literature Review: Types of Literature

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Types of Literature

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Different types of publications have different characteristics.

Primary Literature Primary sources means original studies, based on direct observation, use of statistical records, interviews, or experimental methods, of actual practices or the actual impact of practices or policies. They are authored by researchers, contains original research data, and are usually published in a peer-reviewed journal. Primary literature may also include conference papers, pre-prints, or preliminary reports. Also called empirical research .

Secondary Literature Secondary literature consists of interpretations and evaluations that are derived from or refer to the primary source literature. Examples include review articles (such as meta-analysis and systematic reviews) and reference works. Professionals within each discipline take the primary literature and synthesize, generalize, and integrate new research.

Tertiary Literature Tertiary literature consists of a distillation and collection of primary and secondary sources such as textbooks, encyclopedia articles, and guidebooks or handbooks. The purpose of tertiary literature is to provide an overview of key research findings and an introduction to principles and practices within the discipline.

Adapted from the Information Services Department of the Library of the Health Sciences-Chicago , University of Illinois at Chicago.

Types of Scientific Publications

These examples and descriptions of publication types will give you an idea of how to use various works and why you would want to write a particular kind of paper.

  • Scholarly article aka empirical article
  • Review article
  • Conference paper

Scholarly (aka empirical) article -- example

Empirical studies use data derived from observation or experiment. Original research papers (also called primary research articles) that describe empirical studies and their results are published in academic journals.  Articles that report empirical research contain different sections which relate to the steps of the scientific method.

      Abstract - The abstract provides a very brief summary of the research.

     Introduction - The introduction sets the research in a context, which provides a review of related research and develops the hypotheses for the research.

     Method - The method section describes how the research was conducted.

     Results - The results section describes the outcomes of the study.

     Discussion - The discussion section contains the interpretations and implications of the study.

     References - A references section lists the articles, books, and other material cited in the report.

Review article -- example

A review article summarizes a particular field of study and places the recent research in context. It provides an overview and is an excellent introduction to a subject area. The references used in a review article are helpful as they lead to more in-depth research.

Many databases have limits or filters to search for review articles. You can also search by keywords like review article, survey, overview, summary, etc.

Conference proceedings, abstracts and reports -- example

Conference proceedings, abstracts and reports are not usually peer-reviewed.  A conference article is similar to a scholarly article insofar as it is academic. Conference articles are published much more quickly than scholarly articles. You can find conference papers in many of the same places as scholarly articles.

How Do You Identify Empirical Articles?

To identify an article based on empirical research, look for the following characteristics:

     The article is published in a peer-reviewed journal .

     The article includes charts, graphs, or statistical analysis .

     The article is substantial in size , likely to be more than 5 pages long.

     The article contains the following parts (the exact terms may vary): abstract, introduction, method, results, discussion, references .

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*Research and Writing: Integrated Skills & Strategies*

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Material Type

Primary sources, secondary sources, tertiary sources, a note about websites, still struggling.

Conversing with someone else about your research and writing process can be incredibly helpful.  Contact staff at McKillop Library or the Writing Center using the links below.

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Categorizing types of material is another way that you can organize information.  A source of information can be primary, secondary, or tertiary  depending on when it was created, its purpose and scope, and (sometimes) what discipline is using it.  

It is essential to understand the differences between primary, secondary, and tertiary sources of information so that you know when to use each type in your research.  Remember, determining what type of material a source is can be challenging as it can vary by academic discipline and use.  The sections below will help you recognize the differences between each type of material and provide you with examples of each.

image of primary sources

Primary sources provide information in its original or purest form, meaning that the information has not been condensed, filtered, changed, or interpreted.

Many primary sources are created, experienced, or collected simultaneously to the time period or "event" that is being researched.  For example, if you were researching music of the 1980s, a song by a famous 1980s performer like Madonna would be a primary source.  However, some primary sources, like memoirs and interviews, may be published or provided after the time being researched because they are still reflecting firsthand experiences. Madonna could publish a memoir in 2020 that still counted as a primary source for the above scenario if it provided a firsthand account of her experiences in the 1980s. 

Examples of primary source materials vary by discipline.  In the physical and social sciences, primary sources include original research studies and data sets (like census data or survey results) in their raw, unanalyzed form.  In the arts, original artwork, music, movies, and literature are primary sources.  For history, historic speeches, letters, maps, newspapers, physical objects, and government documents are also considered primary sources.

image of secondary sources

Secondary sources provide information about  a primary source or a set of primary sources.  These sources restate, rearrange, or interpret the original information provided in a primary source.  Secondary sources are often created by experts in the field and address the given subject from a historical or critical perspective. providing discussion or analysis of specific aspects.  

Secondary sources include biographies, research articles (for physical and social sciences, this refers to articles that don't include the authors' original research ) , monographs (other than autobiographies and memoirs), commentaries, and criticisms. 

Secondary sources may have some overlap with other types of materials.  For example, newspaper articles are primary sources in the field of history but secondary in most other disciplines.  Encyclopedias and textbooks are sometimes considered secondary sources although they are usually identified as tertiary.  Remember, you can always check with a librarian or your professor if you need help identifying the type of source you're using!

image of tertiary sources

Tertiary sources compile, index, or organize information from primary and secondary sources.  These sources rarely contain original material and instead typically offer a broad perspective of a topic without any critique or analysis.  Tertiary sources sometimes include a bibliography, works cited, or reference list that can act as a directory to important primary and secondary sources.

Because tertiary sources often aim to provide a broad overview, they generally rely on groups of authors for content.  Editors then review and organize the material prior to publication.

Some common examples of tertiary sources are encyclopedias, dictionaries, textbooks, bibliographies, and directories.  Wikipedia is an example of an online tertiary source.

Tertiary sources occasionally have some overlap with other materials.  As seen in "Secondary Sources," encyclopedias are sometimes considered secondary sources.  Again, remember that you can always check with a librarian or your professor if you need help identifying the type of source you're using.

Just like other formats of information, websites can be primary, secondary, or tertiary sources depending on what information they're providing.  A website that provides interviews with survivors of 9/11 would be a primary source.  A website that used interviews with survivors of 9/11 to piece together a story of that day would be a secondary source.  A website that linked to other interviews, photographs, news reports, and stories from 9/11 would be a tertiary source.  

You might also come across websites that include primary, secondary, and tertiary information.  For example, the types of sources listed in the above paragraph could all be part of just one website.  In instances like this, remember to look at the individual pieces of information as well as the website as a whole when using it for your research.

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  • Primary vs secondary sources: The differences explained 

Can something be both a primary and secondary source?

Research for your literature review can be categorised as either primary or secondary in nature. The simplest definition of primary sources is either original information (such as survey data) or a first person account of an event (such as an interview transcript). Whereas secondary sources are any publshed or unpublished works that describe, summarise, analyse, evaluate, interpret or review primary source materials. Secondary sources can incorporate primary sources to support their arguments.

Ideally, good research should use a combination of both primary and secondary sources. For example, if a researcher were to investigate the introduction of a law and the impacts it had on a community, he/she might look at the transcripts of the parliamentary debates as well as the parliamentary commentary and news reporting surrounding the laws at the time. 

Examples of primary and secondary sources

Primary vs secondary sources: The differences explained

Finding primary sources

  • VU Special Collections  - The Special Collections at Victoria University Library are a valuable research resource. The Collections have strong threads of radical literature, particularly Australian Communist literature, much of which is rare or unique. Women and urban planning also feature across the Collections. There are collections that give you a picture of the people who donated them like Ray Verrills, John McLaren, Sir Zelman Cowen, and Ruth & Maurie Crow. Other collections focus on Australia's neighbours – PNG and Timor-Leste.
  • POLICY - Sharing the latest in policy knowledge and evidence, this database supports enhanced learning, collaboration and contribution.
  • Indigenous Australia  -  The Indigenous Australia database represents the collections of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Library.
  • Australian Heritage Bibliography - Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Subset (AHB-ATSIS)  - AHB is a bibliographic database that indexes and abstracts articles from published and unpublished material on Australia's natural and cultural environment. The AHB-ATSIS subset contains records that specifically relate to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.include journal articles, unpublished reports, books, videos and conference proceedings from many different sources around Australia. Emphasis is placed on reports written or commissioned by government and non-government heritage agencies throughout the country.
  • ATSIhealth  - The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Bibliography (ATSIhealth), compiled by Neil Thomson and Natalie Weissofner at the School of Indigenous Australian Studies, Kurongkurl Katitjin, Edith Cowan University, is a bibliographic database that indexes published and unpublished material on Australian Indigenous health. Source documents include theses, unpublished articles, government reports, conference papers, abstracts, book chapters, books, discussion and working papers, and statistical documents. 
  • National Archive of Australia  - The National Archives of Australia holds the memory of our nation and keeps vital Australian Government records safe. 
  • National Library of Australia: Manuscripts  - Manuscripts collection that is wide ranging and provides rich evidence of the lives and activities of Australians who have shaped our society.
  • National Library of Australia: Printed ephemera  - The National Library has been selectively collecting Australian printed ephemera since the early 1960s as a record of Australian life and social customs, popular culture, national events, and issues of national concern.
  • National Library of Australia: Oral history and folklore - The Library’s Oral History and Folklore Collection dates back to the 1950’s and includes a rich and diverse collection of interviews and recordings with Australians from all walks of life.
  • Historic Hansard - Commonwealth of Australia parliamentary debates presented in an easy-to-read format for historians and other lovers of political speech.
  • The Old Bailey Online - A fully searchable edition of the largest body of texts detailing the lives of non-elite people ever published, containing 197,745 criminal trials held at London's central criminal court.

Whether or not a source can be considered both primary and  secondary, depends on the context. In some instances, material may act as a secondary source for one research area, and as a primary source for another. For example, Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince , published in 1513, is an important secondary source for any study of the various Renaissance princes in the Medici family; but the same book is also a primary source for the political thought that was characteristic of the sixteenth century because it reflects the attitudes of a person living in the 1500s.

Source: Craver, 1999, as cited in University of South Australia Library. (2021, Oct 6).  Can something be a primary and secondary source?.  University of South Australia Library. https://guides.library.unisa.edu.au/historycultural/sourcetypes

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  • Primary vs. Secondary Sources | Difference & Examples

Primary vs. Secondary Sources | Difference & Examples

Published on 4 September 2022 by Raimo Streefkerk . Revised on 15 May 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. A primary source 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 . A secondary source describes, interprets, or synthesises primary sources.

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

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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).

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

  • Books , articles and documentaries that synthesise information on a topic
  • Synopses and descriptions of artistic works
  • Encyclopaedias and textbooks that summarize information and ideas
  • Reviews and essays that evaluate or interpret something

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

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.

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:

  • Does this source come from someone directly involved in the events I’m studying (primary) or from another researcher (secondary)?
  • Am I interested in analysing the source itself (primary) or only using it for background information (secondary)?
  • Does the source provide original information (primary) or does it comment upon information from other sources (secondary)?

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.

What do you use primary sources for?

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

  • Make new discoveries
  • Provide credible evidence for your arguments
  • Give authoritative information about your topic

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 synthesise a large number of primary sources that would be difficult and time-consuming to gather by yourself. They allow you to:

  • Gain background information on the topic
  • Support or contrast your arguments with other researchers’ ideas
  • Gather information from primary sources that you can’t access directly (e.g. private letters or physical documents located elsewhere)

When you conduct a literature review , 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:

  • Was the source created by someone directly involved in the events you’re studying (primary), or by another researcher (secondary)?
  • Does the source provide original information (primary), or does it summarize information from other sources (secondary)?
  • Are you directly analyzing the source itself (primary), or only using it for background information (secondary)?

Some types of sources 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 analysing 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 analyse language and social relations (for example, by conducting content analysis or discourse analysis ).

If you are not analysing 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 Reference Generator.

Streefkerk, R. (2023, May 15). Primary vs. Secondary Sources | Difference & Examples. Scribbr. Retrieved 6 May 2024, from https://www.scribbr.co.uk/working-sources/primary-vs-secondary-sources/

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Principles of Research Design and Drug Literature Evaluation, 2e

Chapter 16:  Introduction to Drug Literature

McKenzie C. Ferguson; Erin M. Timpe Behnen

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Chapter objectives, key terminology, introduction, systematic approach to drug information requests.

  • QUALITY OF MEDICAL LITERATURE
  • TYPES OF LITERATURE
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Describe the systematic approach to searching for drug information

Explain the differences between primary, secondary, and tertiary literature

Discuss strengths and weaknesses of primary, secondary, and tertiary literature

Describe common and reputable sources of medical literature

Identify and appraise clinical practice guidelines

Utilize common bibliographic databases to locate evidence

Discuss ways to identify the quality of information found on the Internet

Boolean operators

Clinical practice guidelines

Cost-benefit analyses

Cost-effective analyses

Cost-minimization analyses

Cost-utility analyses

Focused search

Meta-analysis

Nonsystematic review

Peer review process

Pharmacoeconomic studies

Pharmacoepidemiology

Prescribing information

Primary literature

Secondary literature

Systematic review

Tertiary literature

New drug information is published every day and this enormous amount of accumulated information creates a need for efficiency when searching for information. The provision of drug information is a fundamental responsibility of every practicing pharmacist, and the knowledge and skills to access it effectively and efficiently are essential. The need for efficiency when searching for drug literature is imperative. An organized, logical, and focused approach to the request will enable the clinicians to spend less time searching and more time evaluating the quality of information. This is what ultimately leads to improvements in patient care and patient-oriented outcomes. 1 This involves providing comprehensive, accurate information in a timely manner so as to provide high quality patient care.

Evidence-based medicine (EBM) is the foundation for providing high quality medical and pharmaceutical care. Finding appropriate evidence is a critical step in implementing evidence-based practices. This chapter will outline the systematic approach to searching for drug literature, further discuss the importance of efficiency in searching, and how to identify high quality evidence. The different types of drug literature will be reviewed, including examples of each and methods for evaluation of the material and advantages and disadvantages of each type. How to properly select a resource for a specific clinical question will also be addressed. Lastly, a discussion of using the Internet for drug information is included.

A systematic approach is needed to efficiently search drug information for requests received (see Figure 16-1 ). 2–4 This approach includes: obtaining appropriate background information about the requestor and the request, determining and categorizing the question, developing a search strategy, evaluating the information found, formulating a response, and providing appropriate follow-up and documentation.

FIGURE 16-1

Systematic Approach to Responding to a Drug Information Request. 2–4

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Peer-Reviewed Literature: Peer-Reviewed Research: Primary vs. Secondary

  • Peer-Reviewed Research: Primary vs. Secondary
  • Types of Peer Review
  • Identifying Peer-Reviewed Research

Peer Reviewed Research

Published literature can be either peer-reviewed or non-peer-reviewed. Official research reports are almost always peer reviewed while a journal's other content is usually not. In the health sciences, official research can be primary, secondary, or even tertiary. It can be an original experiment or investigation (primary), an analysis or evaluation of primary research (secondary), or findings that compile secondary research (tertiary). If you are doing research yourself, then primary or secondary sources can reveal more in-depth information.

Primary Research

Primary research is information presented in its original form without interpretation by other researchers. While it may acknowledge previous studies or sources, it always presents original thinking, reports on discoveries, or new information about a topic.

Health sciences research that is primary includes both experimental trials and observational studies where subjects may be tested for outcomes or investigated to gain relevant insight.  Randomized Controlled Trials are the most prominent experimental design because randomized subjects offer the most compelling evidence for the effectiveness of an intervention. See the below graphic and below powerpoint for further information on primary research studies.

differentiate between secondary and tertiary sources of literature review

  • Research Design

Secondary Research

Secondary research is an account of original events or facts. It is secondary to and retrospective of the actual findings from an experiment or trial. These studies may be appraised summaries, reviews, or interpretations of primary sources and often exclude the original researcher(s). In the health sciences, meta-analysis and systematic reviews are the most frequent types of secondary research. 

  • A meta-analysis is a quantitative method of combining the results of primary research. In analyzing the relevant data and statistical findings from experimental trials or observational studies, it can more accurately calculate effective resolutions regarding certain health topics.
  • A systematic review is a summary of research that addresses a focused clinical question in a systematic, reproducible manner. In order to provide the single best estimate of effect in clinical decision making, primary research studies are pooled together and then filtered through an inclusion/exclusion process. The relevant data and findings are then compiled and synthesized to arrive at a more accurate conclusion about a specific health topic. Only peer-reviewed publications are used and analyzed in a methodology which may or may not include a meta-analysis.

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Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Literature

Primary literature, secondary literature, tertiary literature.

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Primary Literature in the Sciences

In the sciences, the primary literature presents the immediate results of research activities.  It often includes analysis of data collected in the field or laboratory.  Primary literature presents original research and/or new scientific discoveries.  

Examples of Primary Literature in the Sciences:

  • Original research published as articles in peer-reviewed journals.
  • Dissertations
  • Technical reports
  • Conference proceedings

Identifying Primary Literature in the Sciences

When looking at a journal article to determine whether or not is it primary literature, look for the following common components of a primary research article:

  • Introduction
  • Methods or Materials and Methods 
  • Conclusions

Secondary Literature in the Sciences

The secondary literature in the sciences summarizes and synthesizes the primary literature.  It is usually broader and less current than primary literature.  Since most information sources in the secondary literature contain extensive bibliographies, they can be useful for finding more information on a topic.  

Examples of Secondary Literature in the Sciences: 

  • Literature review articles

Tertiary Literature in the Sciences

Tertiary literature presents summaries or condensed versions of materials usually with references to primary or secondary sources.  They can be a good place to look up facts or get a general overview of a subject.  

Examples of Tertiary Literature in the Sciences:

  • Dictionaries
  • Encyclopedias
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Effects of supplementary and mainstream education on the secondary–tertiary transitional challenges in English medium higher education

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  • Published: 06 May 2024

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differentiate between secondary and tertiary sources of literature review

  • Alice Hoi Ying Yau   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-7863-9758 1 ,
  • D. Fung 2 &
  • A. Tsang 3  

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Despite the rapid growth of English medium instruction (EMI) in higher education, little research has been conducted to pinpoint the challenges faced by students. This quantitative study explored the challenges posed by the secondary–tertiary transition to first-year students with different English proficiency levels in EMI higher education institutions. In addition, we also investigated students’ perception of the usefulness of supplementary and mainstream education in preparing them for those challenges. 91 participants studying at two tertiary institutions in Hong Kong completed a 52-item questionnaire. The questionnaire included items in relation to three major aspects of challenges: ‘academic studies and skills’, ‘socialization’, and ‘college/university life adaptation’. It was found that students with low proficiency regarded all three aspects as significantly more challenging than the high proficiency ones in their first-year studies. However, despite the different proficiency levels, students similarly perceived mainstream education to be significantly more useful than supplementary education in preparing them for those transitional challenges. The findings together suggest that more English support is needed for low-proficiency students at the tertiary level and argue that mainstream education plays an essential role in assisting students in this secondary–tertiary transition. Implications are discussed in terms of the benefits of having a general English course as perquisite for low English proficiency students before they enroll in English for Academic Purposes courses, and the development of a variety of tasks with more emphasis on communication and collaboration at the secondary level to support them in this transition.

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1 Introduction

It is widely known that adjustment from secondary education to tertiary education is a complex and multifaceted issue (Páramo Fernández et al., 2017 ). Transition refers to “a fixed turning point which takes place at a preordained time and in a certain place” (Quinn, 2010 : 122). In the context of students progressing to higher education, transition usually refers to the shift from secondary education to higher education. Transition can also be understood as “the capability to navigate change”, which includes having the resources to engage with change conditions (Gale & Parker, 2014 : 737). Students who lack the capability may find this transition challenging, particularly given the differences between secondary school and tertiary settings (Hassel & Ridout, 2018 ; Van Rooij et al., 2018 ). These challenges can be broadly categorized into three main areas: personal, socio-emotional and academic (Author; Sanagavarapu et al., 2019 ). Macaro et al. ( 2019 ) believe that these challenges are multiplied among English as a Foreign Language (EFL) students who are receiving higher education in an English Medium Instruction (EMI) context. EMI refers to ‘the use of the English language to teach academic subjects (other than English itself) in countries or jurisdictions where the first language of the majority of the population is not English’ (Macaro, 2018 : 1). Despite the growing trend of EMI in EFL regions such as Japan, Hong Kong and Indian, research on how students perceive the transitional challenges remains scarce, justifying the worth of this study.

To prepare EFL students for transitioning to an EMI tertiary education setting, English learning in prior education has been found to play a crucial role (e.g., Aizawa & Rose, 2020 ; Evans & Morrison, 2011 ). Most students’ early encounters with English in an EFL environment are likely to take place in mainstream education (Choi & Lee, 2008 ). Another way to improve English proficiency, especially in East Asia countries, is to seek supplementary education (Hajar, 2018 ). Supplementary education refers to the fee-based education system, encompassing individual or group tutoring, that operates alongside the mainstream education system (Bray, 2014 ). Its primary aims are to improve students' academic performance, thereby increasing their chances of success in examinations or admissions to prestigious institutions (Bray & Lykins, 2012 ). Although there is an increasing popularity of supplementary education, the impact on students’ English proficiency is mixed and mostly short-term focusing on examinations for tertiary admission. In light of the above, it would be worthwhile to examine the roles mainstream and supplementary education play in equipping EFL students with different English proficiency levels for the secondary–tertiary transition. To our best knowledge, there has never been a comprehensive study that compares the perceived effects between mainstream and supplementary education on facilitating first-year students’ various aspects of transition in an EMI tertiary context.

2 Transitional challenges in EMI higher education

The use of English as an academic lingua franca has been increasingly prevalent in higher education worldwide, particularly in regions where English serves as a second/foreign language (Kirkpatrick, 2012 ; Rose, 2019 ). The adoption of EMI in tertiary education offers several benefits, e.g., attracting international students and visiting scholars and enhancing global competitiveness, promoting academic exchanges by providing a common language for communication, and preparing students for their disciplinary studies and future careers by improving their English language proficiency (Galloway et al., 2020 ; Dimova et al., 2015 ; Macaro et al., 2018 ; Rahman et al., 2021 ). However, students whose first language is not English may encounter challenges in this EMI learning environment, particularly when English may not be the language they have used in their prior education or daily lives (Marco et al., 2019 ). The abrupt transition to an EMI tertiary environment may impact how students adjust to their first year of studies and even their academic success (Lin & Morrison, 2010 ).

Several studies have identified a variety of transitional challenges first-year students in EMI tertiary setting may face. These challenges include difficulties in comprehending course content, understanding teachers’ questions and instructions, fulfilling course requirements (Evans & Morrison, 2011 ), participating in classroom discussions and group work, and reading learning materials (Sert, 2008 ; Shepard & Morrison, 2021 ). Inadequate English proficiency has been reported to exacerbate these challenges (Shepard & Morrison, 2021 ). Some scholars (e.g., Hellekjær, 2010 ; Wong & Wu, 2011 ) have, therefore, emphasized the importance of students attaining a certain level of English proficiency to succeed in transitioning to and participating in EMI education. Nevertheless, the extent of English proficiency required for successful transition remains equivocal (e.g., Kamaşak et al., 2021 ; Macaro et al., 2019 ). For example, Aizawa et al. ( 2020 ) have suggested that students need a minimal level of B2 on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) to be successful. Kerstijens and Nery ( 2000 ) found no statistically significant correlation between IELTS scores and academic success. In contrast, Rose et al. ( 2020 ) reported that students with an IELTS score of 6.5 or higher are more likely to achieve academic success. The inconclusive evidence suggests further research to explore the relationship between students’ English proficiency levels and challenges faced in EMI tertiary setting. It is also worth noting that most of the research in this area has focused primarily on academic performance, neglecting other aspects of student’s lives, such as socio-emotional and personal aspects, which can also affect students’ transition and adjustment to higher education (Author; Sanagavarapu et al., 2019 ). Thus, this study aims to provide a more comprehensive picture of the challenges that students of different English proficiency levels may face during this transition.

3 Mainstream education in preparation for first-year students in EMI tertiary institutions

To develop students’ English proficiency for their further studies, career, and social development, English language education has been integrated as part of the mainstream education in many EFL regions (Hu & McKay, 2012 ). Mainstream education refers to compulsory education providing an officially recognized curriculum (Bray et al., 2014 ). Students in these places receive English language education for about 10–13 years (Choi & Lee, 2008 ). Taking Hong Kong as an example, which is also the context of the current study, students are expected to develop generic skills (e.g., communication, collaboration skills) and subject-specific skills through the curriculum and will be prepared in their senior secondary for the switch to EMI and the use of academic language in tertiary education (Curriculum Development Council, 2017 ). For instance, the Curriculum Development Council ( 2017 ) in Hong Kong specifies that upon completion of secondary education, students are expected to be able to use a variety of language items, for example, tenses, conditionals, modals, and formulaic expressions, to perform such communicative functions as laying out arguments, making recommendations, sustaining group discussion, and giving presentations.

In addition to the English curriculum, several studies have emphasized the importance of students’ prior experience with EMI in their EMI tertiary studies. Many existing studies have discovered that students with prior EMI experience encounter fewer challenges in various aspects, e.g., vocabulary size (e.g., Aizawa & Rose, 2020 ; Lee & Lee, 2018 ; Evans & Morrison, 2011 ; Lin & Morrison, 2010 ; Evans & Morrison, 2011 a, b; Macaro et al., 2019 ). However, Lei and Hu ( 2014 ) reported contradictory findings, suggesting that Chinese university students who received EMI did not outperform those who did not. First-year tertiary students in McMullen’s ( 2014 ) study reported a lack of English proficiency needed for their undergraduate studies despite achieving excellent grades in their high school English classes. Similarly, Pun and Jin ( 2021 ) found no correlation between students’ prior EMI experience and their perceived challenges or learning strategies at Hong Kong EMI universities. These inconsistent findings indicate a need for further research on the extent to which students’ prior education experience has adequately prepared them with the necessary English proficiency required for their first-year EMI experience in the tertiary setting.

4 Supplementary education in preparation for first-year students in EMI tertiary institutions

To prepare for the highly competitive tertiary education entry especially in EFL regions, some students would pay for additional support besides mainstream education, which is known as supplementary education (also called private education, private tutoring and shadow education) (Bray, 1999 ; Lee et al. 2010 ). Supplementary education covers subjects which are taught in mainstream education, particularly the ones which are assessed in examinations, for example English and mathematics (Chan & Bray, 2014 ; Yung & Bray, 2016 ). The proliferation of supplementary education stems from a strong belief of students and parents that it enhances students’ proficiency levels and academic performance so that they can be more successful in school and more competitive in examination (Bray & Lykins, 2012 ; Entrich, 2017 ). This belief garnered some support from studies which have found that students who received supplementary education demonstrated higher level of English proficiency than those who only relied on mainstream education (e.g., Bray & Lykins, 2012 ; Lee, 2010 ).

There is also an emerging trend in the literature that examines the impacts of supplementary education on students’ holistic competencies (Kim & Jung, 2022 ; Luo & Chan, 2022 ) which may have long-term effects. For example, some studies found that supplementary education can enhance students’ self-regulated behaviors, such as longer independent studying time and improved time management skills (e.g., Jung & Go, 2021 ; Mustary, 2019 ; Subedi, 2018 ), although Hong and Park ( 2012 ) have suggested otherwise. Min ( 2016 ) has highlighted the development of note-taking skills, while Cayubit et al. ( 2014 ) have identified a positive impact on students' socialization skills, such as interacting with others. These findings suggest that supplementary education may have an additional side of developing students’ holistic skills, despite its primary objective of improving academic performance. The emerging trend of exploring its effects on students’ holistic development highlights the need for a more comprehensive understanding of the role of supplementary education in promoting students’ long-term success.

The impact of supplementary education on students’ attitudes toward mainstream schooling has also garnered increasing attention. Students’ participation in supplementary education appears to have a negative effect on their attitudes toward mainstream schooling (e.g., Liu & Bray, 2020 ; Zhang & Bray, 2018 ). Hamid et al. ( 2017 ) pointed out that students in Bangladesh chose supplementary education “not because of its proven effectiveness but because of their declining faith in school English teaching” (p. 16). Students perceived tutors as more effective than schoolteachers (Paramita, 2015 ; Yung, 2020 ). The participants in Yung’s ( 2020 ) study rated tutors higher than schoolteachers in helping them increase independent learning ability, increase confidence in using English in daily life and solve learning difficulties which are supposed to be the areas identified in the mainstream curriculum for whole-person development. The participants even expressed that their senior form teachers became more examination-oriented while their private tutors were more able to show them many English learning resources. These results suggest two implications. On the one hand, supplementary education seems to become more desirable and necessary than mainstream education, highlighting the need to compare the two types of education to uncover the repercussions of such mentality and perhaps behaviors of students, who may have become less focused, less motivated, and even ignored teaching activities in mainstream schooling (Jheng, 2015 ; Liu & Bray, 2020 ); on the other hand, supplementary education may bring long-term impacts beyond the exclusive focus on examination preparation. However, research in this area is very limited, and most research focuses on academic aspects. Among the very few studies, Author reported that the perceived benefits of supplementary education were discounted when students progressed to tertiary education, and they viewed it as only helpful to developing academic vocabulary while in general less useful than mainstream education in preparing for the use of English at tertiary level. Therefore, this study aims to fill the gap in the literature by investigating the effects of supplementary education on preparing students for their first-year studies in an EMI tertiary context.

5 Research questions

The literature reviewed above demonstrates the following research gaps in the field of EMI in tertiary education. Firstly, the current literature tends to focus mainly on the academic aspects, neglecting other areas such as socialization and adaptation to college life. A comprehensive understanding of the role of English proficiency in various non-academic aspects remains largely unexplored in EMI tertiary settings. Secondly, although the impact of supplementary education on academic performance has been extensively studied, the potential effects of such education beyond examination are also emerging recently and require further investigation. It is also crucial to examine whether the effects of supplementary education persist from secondary to tertiary levels. In light of these research gaps, the study intends to answer two research questions (RQs) to fill these gaps:

What are the challenges faced by EFL students with different English proficiency levels during their first-year experience in EMI tertiary education?

From a student’s perspective, how useful are supplementary and mainstream secondary education in equipping them for facing their perceived challenges in EMI tertiary education?

6.1 Participants

A total of 91 tertiary-level native Cantonese first-year students (46 Female, 42 Male, and 3 preferred not to tell) aged between 17 and 23 in Hong Kong were recruited from two EMI tertiary-level institutions. They were purposively sampled because (1) they were first-year undergraduate students, (2) received their primary and secondary mainstream education for at least 12 years, (3) had supplementary education during their secondary school years, and (4) were able to recount their experiences and offer perspectives at both secondary and tertiary levels. These students had different English proficiency as reflected from the grades they obtained in the Hong Kong Diploma of Education Examination (HKDSE) English papers, a public examination upon completion of secondary education. The papers distinguished students from level 1 to level 5, 5*, and 5**, with the latter awarded to the most proficient students. We categorized students with levels 1–2 as low proficiency ( n  = 17; these are regarded not having met the minimum requirement for some tertiary institutions), 3–4 as mid-proficiency ( n  = 52), and 5 to 5** as high proficiency ( n  = 17; the approximately top 10% of the entire population) (Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority [HKEAA], 2012 ). Footnote 1 This classification, based on public examination results, allowed us to examine if students with different proficiency levels differed in their perception of challenges in tertiary education.

7 Instrument for data collection

This paper reports part of a larger study that examined EFL learners’ experiences and views in secondary and tertiary education. A questionnaire with structured questions was used. It consisted of a background page comprising socio-biological background items (e.g., gender, age) and two sections with a total of 52 five-point Likert-type items to measure students’ perceptions of the challenges at tertiary education and the usefulness of mainstream and supplementary education in equipping them for these transitional challenges from secondary to tertiary settings. Section 1 was about the learners’ perceptions of challenges they faced during their first year at tertiary institutions. It consisted of 26 items from ‘strongly agree’ (5) to ‘strongly disagree’ (1). The items were developed based on the tripartite model proposed by Sanagavarapu et al. ( 2019 ), which identifies various transitional challenges faced by students in their first year of tertiary education. This model encompasses three primary domains of challenges: personal (e.g., balancing life in a tertiary setting, work and family relationship), socio-emotional (e.g., making new friends) and academic (e.g., dealing with assignments and handling the change of learning mode). The comprehensive nature of this model allows an in-depth examination of challenges faced by first-year tertiary students. Drawing from the authors’ years of experience in EMI tertiary settings, the items were further refined and subsequently co-developed with the pilot-study participants (sharing the same characteristics with those in the present study). The items were regarded as sufficiently comprehensive at capturing the challenges faced by first-year students at tertiary institutions. These items covered three major aspects of challenges including ‘academic studies and skills’ (17 items, Cronbach’s α  = 0.936), ‘socialization’ (4 items, Cronbach’s α  = 0.651), and ‘college/university life adaptation’ (5 items, Cronbach’s α  = 0.752) (see Table  1 ). The categorisation is also used by Author. Section 2 was about the usefulness of supplementary and mainstream secondary education (rating from ‘very useful’ (5) to ‘not useful at all’ (1)) in equipping students for the 26 challenges across the three categories of challenges mentioned in Section 1. The reliability of the items in each category was determined by Cronbach’s Alpha: ‘academic studies and skills’ ( α  = 0.922), ‘socialization’ ( α  = 0.832), and ‘college/university life adaptation’ ( α  = 0.816) for supplementary education, and the figures were 0.912, 0.610, and 0.741, respectively, for mainstream education. Section 1 aimed at addressing RQ One while Section 2 provided answers to RQ Two. Two examples of the questionnaire are shown as follows:

  • (SA = Strongly Agree; A  = Agree; N  = Neither Agree nor Disagree; D  = Disagree; SD = Strongly Disagree).
  • (VU = Very useful; SU = Somewhat useful; N  = Neither useful nor useless; NV = Not very useful; NU = not useful at all).

8 Procedures

Convenience sampling was used. The questionnaires were distributed to students by the authors and through authors’ and participants’ networks. Data collection was conducted outside class time in classrooms, and participation was voluntary. Administrators were present to guide the participants to complete the questionnaires step by step as the participants in the pilot study stressed the importance of clear guidance to facilitate the completion of the questionnaires. The content of each section was explained by the administrator. Clarifications were also provided to questions and unclear items raised by the students. These procedures were to avoid problems such as low responses, incomplete questionnaires and inaccurate responses. At the same time, it was emphasized to students that they could choose not to respond to the items they did not want to and that their data would be treated in confidence.

9 Data analysis

With regard to RQ One, descriptive statistics were first provided to present an overview of the perceived difficulties faced by students in tertiary education. Subsequently, normality checks were performed by screening the skewness and kurtosis values. The aspects of ‘academic studies and skills’ and ‘socialization’ were normally distributed for each group of students with different language proficiencies (skewness ranging from − 0.570 to 0.281 and kurtosis − 0.950 to 1.111, which are within ± 2 indicating normality (Roever & Phakiti, 2017 )). Levene’s tests indicated non-significant values ( p  = 0.928 and 0.059, respectively), suggesting homogeneity of variances across groups in the two aspects. One-way ANOVAs Footnote 2 were carried out to compare these students with different levels of English proficiency in their reported difficulties in the two aspects. For ‘college/university life adaptation’, the kurtosis value (2.804) of the low-proficiency group indicated that it was not normally distributed and therefore, a Kruskal–Wallis test was performed.

As for RQ Two, normality checks were also initially conducted. It was found that the three proficiency groups’ ratings of the usefulness of supplementary and mainstream education in the three aspects of challenges were all normally distributed (skewness ranging from -1.152 to 0.299 and kurtosis − 1.507 to 1.069). Levene’s tests indicated non-significant values ( p  = 0.260 to 0.868), suggesting homogeneity of variances across groups in all three aspects. Two-way 3X2 mixed ANOVAs were used to explore whether students with different English proficiency levels had differential perceptions on the effect of mainstream and supplementary classes on their preparation for tertiary education.

The findings are presented in two sub-sections corresponding to the two RQs: (1) the perceived challenges in tertiary education, and (2) the perceived effectiveness of mainstream versus supplementary education in preparing students for these challenges in secondary–tertiary transition.

11 Perceived challenges in tertiary education

The descriptive statistics of students’ perceptions on the 26 different challenges of studying at tertiary institution were first examined (see Table  2 ). When analyzing the data, it was found that two of the questions (‘managing course schedules’ and ‘managing course selection’) were answered ‘not applicable’ by around half of the participants, suggesting that it was not considered a difficulty relevant to the learners. The reason could be that for these students, they were enrolled in program where course selection was not controlled by them in their first year of study (e.g., programmes where all courses were compulsory, and no electives were provided in the first year).

Descriptively, the students with high English proficiency generally did not agree that these are challenges for them ( Ms  < 3 for all items). Those with mid-English proficiency also tended not to perceive these items as challenges, but they may have particular difficulties in ‘monitoring learning process and progress’ (item e) and ‘maintaining motivation and attention on learning’ (item f), with mean rating of 3.25 and 3.37, respectively. The trends for low-proficiency students were the opposite, who generally agreed most of the items as challenges for them in tertiary education ( Ms  > 3). Among the 26 items, these low-proficiency learners perceived ‘understanding assessment criteria of an assignment’ (item c), ‘understanding expectations and components of an assignment’ (item b), ‘maintaining motivation and attention on learning’ (item f), and ‘sustaining old support networks’ (item j) as most difficult with mean ratings falling between 3.59 and 3.76.

Between-group comparisons were next performed to analyze whether students with low, mid, and high proficiency differed in their perception of challenges in the three aspects. As shown in Table  3 , significant differences were found for all three aspects with medium effect sizes (partial ŋ 2 from 0.119–0.135), according to the statistical interpretation by Cohen ( 1988 ). Post hoc Bonferroni and Mann–Whitney U tests revealed that low-proficiency learners perceived all categories as challenges significantly more than the mid and high proficiency learners, except for the category ‘academic studies and skills’ where no significant difference was found between low and mid-proficiency learners.

12 Effectiveness of supplementary and mainstream education in secondary–tertiary transition

First, descriptively, students generally perceived mainstream education as effective in getting them prepared for tertiary education. Among the 26 difficulties, mainstream education was regarded as particularly useful in training students to communicate with professors, participate in class discussion, complete assignment timely, and seek help (all with M  > 3.5), and it was regarded as not useful (i.e., M  < 3) only in 3 items: ‘managing course schedules’, ‘managing course selection’, and ‘referencing strategies’. In contrast, supplementary education was rated as not useful in the majority of the items ( M  < 3) (see Table  4 for the descriptives).

Next, 2X3 mixed ANOVAs were conducted with type of education (supplementary and mainstream) as a within-subject variable and English proficiency (low, mid, and high) as a between-subject variable. There were no main effects of English proficiency and no interaction effects for all three categories. The findings reported below will only focus on the main effects of the type of education.

It was found that mainstream education was significantly more useful than supplementary education in all three aspects with large effect sizes (partial ŋ 2  = 0.172 to 0.327), with ‘socialization’ rendering the largest effect size (see Table  5 ). Figures  1 , 2 and 3 also demonstrated how mainstream education was perceived as more useful in all three aspects of challenges in tertiary education for all three groups of students.

figure 1

Usefulness of mainstream and supplementary education in helping students with ‘academic studies and skills’

figure 2

Usefulness of mainstream and supplementary education in helping students with ‘socialization’

figure 3

Usefulness of mainstream and supplementary education in helping students with ‘college/university life adaptation’

13 Discussion and conclusion

This study set out to examine the challenges EFL first-year students of different English proficiency levels perceived in EMI higher education and the roles supplementary and mainstream education played in preparing them for these challenges. Overall, it was found that students with low English proficiency level perceived the transition as more challenging than students with mid and high English proficiency levels, and these challenges do not only include academic ones, but also those related to socialization and adaptation to college life. Mainstream education is perceived to be more effective than supplementary education in helping students across proficiency levels overcome these challenges, again including academic ones as well as socialization and adaptation to college life, in EMI higher education.

In response to RQ One, our findings suggested that students with low English proficiency may need more help than students with mid and high proficiency in their first-year studies in an EMI tertiary institution as they reported more challenges in all three aspects. Those challenges which are mediated by the English language use were evident in previous transitional studies (e.g., Evans & Morrison, 2011 ; Pun & Jin, 2021 ; Walkinshaw et al., 2017 ), but it is important to highlight that these challenges should not be underestimated as academic-related only, because students’ low English proficiency level could also bring challenges in such aspects as socialization and college/university life adaptation when students get admitted to EMI higher education. As for mid and high proficiency learners, our study found that the challenges investigated are not deemed as difficulties, meaning that their English proficiency could be sufficient for them to cope with those demands. While we are not aiming to establish causal relationship between language proficiency and language-related challenges in higher education, the significant differences among our low and mid/high proficiency learners can at least echo the call of Macaro ( 2018 ) for more research to identify the English proficiency students need and how they are prepared to face the barriers in the transition period.

To support low-proficiency students in the secondary–tertiary transition, helping them improve English proficiency seems to be a way. In secondary school, students typically follow a set curriculum with specific learning goals and objectives in a more structured learning environment (Van Rooij et al., 2018 ). However, students in tertiary settings are required to comprehend and conform to academic practices and expectations. Additionally, English is used in a more versatile manner for both socializing and academic purposes, which students may not widely use outside of the classroom, or be completely fluent (Evans & Morrison, 2018 ). However, English proficiency development is a long-term endeavor, admission coordinators in higher education and English for Academic Purposes (EAP) centers can consider some potential short-term solutions to support these students. EMI tertiary institutions could provide preparatory courses for low-proficiency students as these courses were found to be able to develop students’ ability and confidence in using English for academic tasks and EMI study (Chang et al., 2017 ; Thompson et al., 2022 ). Since many tertiary institutions offer EAP courses for first-year students as a language requirement of graduation (Fenton-Smith et al., 2017 ), the preparatory courses could then focus on general English as well as vocabulary knowledge, given that the large vocabulary size needed for EMI studies (Author) is one of the major challenges faced by students (Uchihara & Harada, 2018 ). Such preparatory courses could consolidate the low-proficiency students’ English foundation and increase their vocabulary size before enrolling in an EAP course. Also, these courses could aim to aid in their socialization and college/university adaptation by providing opportunities for them to interact with their peers and instructors and learning about the expectations of the academic environment. When designing these preparatory courses, it is necessary for the EAP practitioners to examine how secondary education curriculum has prepared senior form students for the EMI tertiary transition so as to understand their English skills needed for this transition. For example, Aizawa and Rose ( 2020 ) found that students who studied in a high school which offered extracurricular school activities requiring the active use of English were more prepared to transition into EMI higher education.

In response to RQ Two, our study found that students perceived mainstream education as more effective than supplementary education in preparing them for the various challenges during the secondary–tertiary transition. In other words, the generic skills and communicative functions (e.g., sustaining group discussion and giving presentations as indicated by Curriculum Development Council ( 2017 )) covered in the mainstream curriculum in Hong Kong could be providing some support to students in the transition. More interestingly, students of different English proficiency levels had the same perception. Students with low proficiency are more likely to seek supplementary education to improve their English proficiency (Zhang & Bray, 2015 ). It is, therefore, expected that supplementary education could have supported these students more in handling the language-related transitional challenges. Also, some evidence has shown that supplementary education might also promote students’ holistic competencies (e.g., Cayubit et al., 2014 ; Jung & Go, 2021 ; Mustary, 2019 ; Subedi, 2018 ), thereby facilitating the transition. However, our study indicated that this was not the case. It appears that, at least from the students’ perspectives, the benefits of supplementary education may be narrowly restricted. This is not to say that supplementary education is not useful at all, but in coping with the secondary–tertiary transitional challenges, students need much more help than what supplementary education alone could offer.

Supplementary education does not seem to promote generic skills such as communication skills (e.g., the ‘socialization’ challenges in our study) that could be useful for students to handle various language use contexts at the tertiary level. Students in previous studies found supplementary education useful in non-assessed aspects (e.g., interacting with others (Cayubit et al., 2014 ), independent learning ability (Yung, 2020 )) that were supposed to be cultivated through the mainstream education curriculum and could bring long-term impacts on students’ whole-person development. However, our study showed that these perceived benefits may not be sustained at the tertiary level. Uncovered in this study by the current tertiary students is the inadequacy of supplementary education to prepare them for the secondary–tertiary transition. It further suggests the narrowly defined role of supplementary education plays, i.e., for examination preparation, which is less valued by the tertiary students when they are no longer under the pressure of public examination.

Our study also reveals the importance of mainstream education which cannot be replaced by the supplementary education. Students in the previous studies commented that their participation in supplementary schooling is a response to their dissatisfaction with the mainstream schooling because of less effective teaching especially on examination skills (Hamid et al., 2017 ; Yung, 2015 ). However, the tertiary students in our study looked back with hindsight and considered mainstream education as more effective in assisting them to cope with the transitional challenges at tertiary education. It implies that secondary students may discard and overlook their needs of mainstream schooling, and this does not appear to be a healthy phenomenon as solely focusing on examination, and supplementary education can lead to missing many opportunities for all-rounded development espoused by the mainstream schooling. This may in turn adversely affect students’ adjustment to a tertiary setting. Students should be well aware that supplementary and mainstream education seem to serve different purposes. There are also certain skills only mainstream schooling can nurture while supplementary schooling cannot, and they are indeed crucial for the secondary–tertiary transition. A pedagogical implication arising from these findings is about how secondary school teachers could promote the importance of whole-person development in their teaching and curriculum, at the same time, taking their students’ examination needs into consideration.

14 Implications

In this paper, we have reported how EMI tertiary-level learners with different English proficiency levels perceived challenges they faced in their first-year studies and the effectiveness of mainstream and supplementary education in preparing them for these transitional challenges. Several implications could be drawn from our analysis for future practices and research.

Concerning the future practices, our findings have practical implications for tertiary institutions, secondary school teachers and students. At the tertiary level, we suggest general English courses to be made as prerequisite for low-proficiency students before they enroll in EAP courses. Doing so can aid students academically and holistically, promoting a smoother transition to higher education. There is also the need of further scrutiny of what could be transferred to EMI tertiary education so as to evaluate how prepared students are for this transition and design relevant EAP content to cater their English needs in this setting. At the secondary level, school teachers may need to strike a balance between whole-person development and examination and highlight the equal importance of both aspects to their senior form students. Although mainstream education is more effective in preparing students for the transitional challenges, the exam-oriented skills that students, especially those with low English proficiency, have had may not be very sufficient for transitioning to EMI higher education. Greater emphasis can be put on a variety of language tasks and generic skills (e.g., communication and collaboration) that could make the secondary–tertiary transition smoother. As for students, they should be aware of the differing roles mainstream and supplementary education play for their short- and long-term development so that they could benefit from both types of schooling.

Concerning the future research, more EMI transitional studies are suggested to examine what could be done to assist students with different proficiency in making their transition smoother. For example, while we have suggested having a general English course before an EAP course as preparation to tertiary education, the usefulness of such a general English course and the contents to be included need to be critically evaluated through more research endeavors. It would also be helpful to elicit from tertiary educators, secondary school teachers, and students in some qualitative research the areas that concern them the most in this secondary–tertiary transition period. Furthermore, more research is needed to understand the non-academic challenges that the lower English proficient students may face, providing a more comprehensive picture of this secondary–tertiary transition in EMI higher education. While most studies have focused on the influence of supplementary education on academic performance, further investigation could explore the effects of supplementary education on student holistic development and its potential impact on mainstream curriculum.

15 Limitations

There are a few limitations in this study. This is an exploratory study using two EMI tertiary institutions to examine an under-researched area which could limit the generalizability of the current findings. More studies are needed to draw more definitive conclusions. We are also aware of the methodological limitations. Our sample size might not be sufficient to provide strong evidence as a large sample size would do. Other factors such as students’ language learning history, the type of supplementary education classes they took and learning process students have in their current study could also be considered as it is possible that these factors might contribute to the differences we found in this study. Triangulation of data with interviews might better explain some of the findings and address those limitations. Despite the above limitations, it is hoped that this study can provide some directions for both secondary and EMI tertiary institutions to devise more targeted strategies to help students bridge the gap between the two settings and enhance student’s English proficiency to cope with these transitional challenges. Endeavor is also needed to develop secondary-level students’ awareness of the multifaceted roles mainstream education potentially play in facilitating their smoother transition to EMI tertiary institutions.

Five students did not report their HKDSE English grade.

We intended to perform a MANOVA initially, but the sample size (n = 17 for two of the groups) was too small compared to the number of variables (26 items of the questionnaire) being investigated, rendering insufficient power.

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This research did not receive any specific grant from funding agencies in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors. Dr. Alice Yau, Dr. Daniel Fung, and Dr. Art Tsang contributed to the study design, designing and adapting of the questionnaire, and data collection. Dr. Yau and Dr. Tsang have been involved in the interpretation of results, write-up and revision of the paper. Dr. Fung contributed to the statistical analysis of the questionnaire data.

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Yau, A.H.Y., Fung, D. & Tsang, A. Effects of supplementary and mainstream education on the secondary–tertiary transitional challenges in English medium higher education. Educ Res Policy Prac (2024). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10671-024-09368-5

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    Secondary sources will include a reference list to direct you to the primary research reported in the article. They include: Review Journals : These generally start with Annual Review of …, Advances in …, Current Opinion in … Article Reviews : Articles that summarize the current literature on a specific topic.

  8. PDF Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources

    Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources ... A typical academic project will begin with a literature review, or a systematic survey of what has been published on a specific topic at the point that the current study is undertaken. ... difference between primary and secondary sources in literature, the secondary sources aim to explain ...

  9. 2.4: Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Sources

    The three labels for information sources in this category are, respectively, primary sources, secondary sources, and tertiary sources. Here are examples to illustrate the first- handedness, second-handedness, and third-handedness of information: J.D. Salinger's novel Catcher in the Rye.

  10. Primary, secondary, and tertiary sources

    The most common example is an encyclopedia. Consider a particular revolution as an historical event. All the documents from the time become primary sources. All the historians writing later produce secondary sources. Then someone reads those secondary sources and summarizes them in an encyclopedia article, which becomes a tertiary source.

  11. UB LibGuides: Conducting a Literature Review: Types of Literature

    Tertiary Literature. Tertiary literature consists of a distillation and collection of primary and secondary sources such as textbooks, encyclopedia articles, and guidebooks or handbooks. The purpose of tertiary literature is to provide an overview of key research findings and an introduction to principles and practices within the discipline.

  12. Primary vs. Secondary 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 ...

  13. Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources

    A source of information can be primary, secondary, or tertiary depending on when it was created, its purpose and scope, and (sometimes) what discipline is using it. It is essential to understand the differences between primary, secondary, and tertiary sources of information so that you know when to use each type in your research.

  14. 10.1 Types of Sources: Primary, Secondary, Tertiary

    What is a Primary Source? Primary sources are texts that arise directly from a particular event or time period. They may be letters, speeches, works of art, works of literature, diaries, direct personal observations, newspaper articles that offer direct observations of current events, survey responses, tweets, other social media posts, original scholarly research (meaning research that the ...

  15. Tertiary Sources Explained

    A tertiary source, also called a reference work, is a source that gives an overview of information gathered from primary and secondary sources but does not provide original interpretations or analysis. Examples include: Dictionaries. Encyclopedias. Databases. Bibliographies. These sources types compile information from a wide variety of sources.

  16. Primary and secondary sources

    The simplest definition of primary sources is either original information (such as survey data) or a first person account of an event (such as an interview transcript). Whereas secondary sources are any publshed or unpublished works that describe, summarise, analyse, evaluate, interpret or review primary source materials.

  17. Primary vs Secondary Sources

    Secondary sources are best identified by their use of primary articles as source material.Examples of secondary sources include: review articles, systematic reviews, and meta-analyses.Other sources, such as practice guidelines and expert topic summaries are usually considered secondary as well (although some would argue that they are tertiary since they reference both primary and secondary ...

  18. Primary vs. Secondary Sources

    A primary source 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. A secondary source describes, interprets, or synthesises primary sources. Primary sources are more credible as evidence ...

  19. Chapter 16: Introduction to Drug Literature

    Explain the differences between primary, secondary, and tertiary literature. Discuss strengths and weaknesses of primary, secondary, and tertiary literature. Describe common and reputable sources of medical literature. Identify and appraise clinical practice guidelines. Utilize common bibliographic databases to locate evidence

  20. Peer-Reviewed Literature: Peer-Reviewed Research: Primary vs. Secondary

    Published literature can be either peer-reviewed or non-peer-reviewed. Official research reports are almost always peer reviewed while a journal's other content is usually not. In the health sciences, official research can be primary, secondary, or even tertiary.

  21. Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Literature in the Sciences

    Tertiary Literature in the Sciences. Tertiary literature presents summaries or condensed versions of materials usually with references to primary or secondary sources. They can be a good place to look up facts or get a general overview of a subject. Examples of Tertiary Literature in the Sciences: Textbooks; Dictionaries; Encyclopedias; Handbooks

  22. Primary, Secondary, & Tertiary Research

    Secondary Literature. Secondary Literature summarizes original work(s). To contrast, the following are not primary research articles (i.e., they are secondary sources): Literature reviews; Meta-Analyses/Review articles (These are studies that arrive at conclusions based on research from many other studies.) Editorials; Letters; Chapters in books

  23. What's a Primary Source? or a Literature Search?

    Tertiary Literature/Source Tertiary literature consists of a distillation and collection of primary and secondary sources such as textbooks, encyclopedia articles, and guidebooks or handbooks. The purpose of tertiary literature is to provide an overview of key research findings and an introduction to principles and practices within the discipline.

  24. Effects of supplementary and mainstream education on the secondary

    It is widely known that adjustment from secondary education to tertiary education is a complex and multifaceted issue (Páramo Fernández et al., 2017).Transition refers to "a fixed turning point which takes place at a preordained time and in a certain place" (Quinn, 2010: 122).In the context of students progressing to higher education, transition usually refers to the shift from secondary ...

  25. Researching the Influence of Rural University Campuses on Rural ...

    While there have been studies on the relationship between higher education institutions and regional economic growth, few have delved into the economic impact of decentralized higher education institutions at the county level and associated reginal disparities in terms of socio-economic development. Utilizing the data of the Chinese universities that started to establish their campuses in ...