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Information literacy ~ Wetenschapseducatie en Communicatie: Primary and secondary sources

What is the difference between primary and secondary sources?

Sources for literature study are divided into primary and secondary sources.

A primary publication contains new information. It is the author’s first report of a discovery, or the first proof of a hypothesis. Examples of primary publications include journal articles, dissertations, reports and conference reports.

Secondary publications contain an overview of primary literature. They include encyclopaedias, handbooks and bibliographies.

For more information about the publications named here, see the chapter ‘Types of Literature’ in this guide.

Examples of primary sources

Examples of primary sources

Academic journals

See the chapter ‘Types of Literature’.


See the chapter ‘Types of Literature’.


Government websites, websites of research institutes and other official bodies. Remember that anyone can put anything on the internet. Not all information on the internet is reliable!

Grey literature

Grey literature consists of publications that are not usually included in bibliographic databases. They are reports by official bodies, work documents, ‘internal’ documents, doctoral theses, popularized academic work, and newspaper articles.

They are less authoritative in the academic sense but can nevertheless be useful, for example as a starting point or focus for a literature study.

Examples of secondary sources

Examples of secondary sources

Bibliographic database

A list of titles of publications selected according to a particular principle and organized in a particular order.


An ordered list of publications held at a particular location. Works are organized in various ways (e.g. by author, subject or keyword).


See the chapter ‘Types of Literature’.


An annual publication of an association or a society.

Literature guide

A description of publications on a particular subject.

The Technology Libguide

Reference work

A publication for the sole purpose of finding information quickly. Examples of reference works are address lists (e.g. of professional organizations), dictionaries and encyclopaedias.