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May 20, 2010

Secondary Sources (aka How to Cite a Source You Found in Another Source)


Timothy.mcadoo by Timothy McAdoo

You’ve probably heard that you should avoid secondary sources when possible. It’s true—if you find great information being quoted or paraphrased somewhere, it’s well worth your effort to track down the original source so you can read it for yourself and therefore cite it directly.

But why track down the original when you already have the quotes?

First, by reading the full text of the original source, you can verify that the context of the quote supports the point you want to make. You don’t want to be surprised by an informed reader who tells you that the original source actually contradicts your points—especially if that informed reader is your professor!  

Second, by finding and reading the original source, you will become better informed about your research topic. To a reader familiar with the research in your topic area, the citations in your paper are one indication of whether you have a firm understanding of the subject and of the relevant research. By contrast, if you’ve cited secondary sources for ideas or quotations that you could have obtained easily (or relatively so), you may give the impression that your research was hasty or superficial.

If your primary source is an archival document (e.g., a diary, limited-circulation brochure or pamphlet, unpublished manuscript), see Section 7.10 of the APA Publication Manual (6th ed.) for citation and reference guidelines and examples.  

So when are secondary sources appropriate?

It’s okay to cite a secondary source when you’ve exhausted the options for finding the original work.

For example, an out-of-print work may be impossible for you to find but could still be quoted in recent work by other authors. Or perhaps the paper you’re reading has cited a personal correspondence. You obviously can’t cite the original source directly in that case, so the secondary source is appropriate.

And of course there are those cases when an author takes a complex topic and puts it in layman’s terms. Citing this type of secondary source, where the extra level of analysis is much the point, may also be appropriate.

How is it done?

In your reference list, provide a reference for the source you read. This is known as the secondary source because it is one step removed from the original source of the idea or quotation. In your text, name the original work and provide the citation for the secondary source.

Let’s look at an example:

In his e-mails, Smith argued that asynchronous line dancing would be the next Internet meme (as cited in Jones, 2010).



Jones (2010) would be the reference you include in your reference list. Also, note that by mentioning the original format of the information (in this case a series of e-mail messages), you not only specify that this is a secondary source but also give the reader an indication of why that’s the case. Although it’s not a requirement, mentioning the original format answers this potential question for the reader so he or she can focus on the content!

Have any questions about citing secondary sources? Feel free to leave us comments. What kinds of secondary sources have you used?

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