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Primary and Secondary Sources Versus Educational Materials: What's the Difference?

A primary source is typically an actual literary work (a play, a poem, a novel or short story) or actual historical documents related to the cultural background of that work or the author's life. A secondary source is typically material written about those primary sources by professional scholars (a biography, a book of critical essays, an entry in a specialist encyclopedia, an article in a peer-reviewed journal or from a database of such articles). An educational resource is non-peer-reviewed material--often summarized, simplified, or otherwise designed to introduce or explain materials on a very basic level for amateur students or the general public. Educational materials include teachers' handouts and outlines, general encyclopedia articles, guides and summaries, book and play reviews, abstracts of longer works, and 99.9% of literary web pages that Google would turn up.

NB: Primary sources and secondary sources are fine for use in college-level research papers, but the student should not cite, quote, or refer to materials from educational resources. These educational resources are designed to teach or explain basic materials or help students study and master materials for examinations. They are not designed for original research.

For example, suppose a student were writing on Shakespeare's King Lear and its historical and religious context. The following primary sources would be excellent for use in the paper:

  • The text of King Lear itself as edited in the student's textbook or in a standard scholarly edition of the text like the Riverside Shakespeare.
  • A photo-facsimile reproducing images of actual pages from a folio edition of King Lear in 1623.
  • The text of King James' Profanity Act of 1606, or other English historical documents of the time, that might have affected the playwright.
  • A letter written by an individual in 1615 who watched one of the plays and commented on the performance, which a scholar has reproduced in a collection of 17th-century letters.
  • A text of the King James Bible used in Shakespeare's day--as opposed to the revised editions (NIV or RKJ) for modern readers.

The following would be secondary sources, and they would also be suitable for use in such a paper:

  • A book like Caroline Spurgeon's Shakespeare's Imagery
  • A print article like Julian Markell's "'King Lear,' Revolution, and the New Historicism" taken from the Spring 1991 issue of Modern Language Studies, available bound in the library
  • An electronic article like Jeffrey Stern's "King Lear: The Transference of the Kingdom," from the Autumn 1990 issue of Shakespeare Quarterly accessed via a database like JSTOR or Infotrac
  • A full book-length biography of Shakespeare or a biographical entry from the Literature Resource Center database.
  • An article from a specialized reference resource like the specialized encyclopedia, Shakespeare: From A to Z or Metzger and Coogan's The Oxford Companion to the Bible

The following would be educational resources suitable for studying purposes or understanding the text more fully on a first reading. However, they would not be used in an actual research paper for that class, so you might read them, but will not cite them:

  • A handout that your teacher passed out in class, such as this one
  • An abstract appearing at the beginning of an article summarizing its contents
  • Homer Watt's Outlines of Shakespeare's Plays: Synopses, Background Material, and Genealogical Charts from the College Outline Series
  • Masterplots or other summaries of the play
  • A blurb appearing before the literary work in your textbook that the teacher or editor designed as a bare-bones introduction.
  • A Wikipedia article about King Lear or William Shakespeare
  • An educational webpage posted by a college instructor primarily for student use.
  • Cliffs Notes: King Lear (or Sparknotes: King Lea)
  • A review of a production of King Lear performed in Chicago last year
  • The Zondervan Teen Study Bible or God's Game Plan: The Bible for Athletes

Student researchers should keep in mind three rules. First, all English papers in college-level classes that analyze works of literature must use quotations or citations from primary sources (i.e., the original work appearing in your textbook) as evidence. Second, most of these classes also require secondary sources as supplementary evidence. Third, students should not cite mere educational resources in their research papers. Educational materials are only used for study and understanding the gist of a subject--not for writing advanced research papers. Citing them in an actual paper is considered amateurish and high-schoolish, though you are welcome to read such materials to help you understand the work initially.

When it comes to secondary sources, generally the most prestigious ones are peer-reviewed. You can often set up a library database to show you exclusively peer-reviewed results or ask your librarian to help you find peer-reviewed journals. The second-best sources are typically books published by a scholarly press like Oxford University Press or Harvard Imprints. The third-best sources are books from non-academic publishers. The fourth-best would be popular magazines and news articles. Usually, web materials usually are dead-last in their trustworthiness and academic "street cred."

When it comes to primary sources and determining which edition of a text to use, for upper-level students, a good method is to skim through scholarly articles and see which version or edition all the scholars use as their standard. Use that one two. For instance, Shakespeare's plays come in editions by Penguin Classics, the Complete Signet Classic, the Bevington Complete Works, the Norton Shakespeare, and the Riverside Shakespeare. Out of all these various editions and versions, you will find that most current scholars use the Riverside version when they submit articles for publication, so upper-division English majors should do that too, if they have a copy available. However, for general education courses for freshmen and sophomores, usually the version printed in the class textbook will be perfectly acceptable to most teachers.



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