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Identify Primary, Secondary, Tertiary Sources

Learn about primary, secondary, and tertiary sources.

What you'll find on this page

On this page, you'll learn:

  • what secondary sources are and what they look like in different disciplines

  • where to find secondary sources

  • how to use secondary sources

  • additional tips to help you identify whether a source is secondary

What are secondary sources?

Secondary sources are about primary sources and provide analysis, commentary, or discussion.

Like primary sources, secondary sources may look different depending on your discipline. For example:

In STEM & medical fields In the humanities & social sciences
book reviews substantive & scholarly articles
systematic review articles scholarly books
survey articles reviews of books, art, theater & music
quantitative meta-analysis articles newspaper articles that interpret rather than report on an event

Where to find secondary sources

Secondary sources can easily be found using the search box on the library home page or in the library databases. For example:

Need assistance using the VCU Libraries search box or databases? Visit:

How to use secondary sources

When your professor asks you to use secondary sources in your writing, you are being asked to quote, paraphrase, and incorporate them in the following ways:

Pro tips

1. Identifying a secondary source is all about the context of your research topic.

  • This fun quiz from Ithaca College Library has some great examples of secondary sources in various contexts.

2. Check the source's references.

  • If a source you are using also cites your primary source, that's a clue that it could be a secondary source for your research.
    • For example, if your research topic is about masculine expectations in Kafka's Metamorphosis, this article directly quoting Metamorphosis (your primary source) could be used as a secondary source. 
  • The references/works cited/bibliography of a source is also a great place to go to find additional sources on the same topic. Many databases now provide interactive reference lists which link you directly to those sources.