Examples for the distinction between protocol functions

Primary literature and secondary literature

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Posted on by Ivo Ziegler
When researching the literature in the context of academic work, the various types of sources are of great importance. Here one often hears about the so-called primary and secondary literature. But tertiary literature also exists. In this post we take a look at what differentiates the types of sources in handling, how you can quote them and generally work with them in a scientifically correct manner.

Types of sources - what do they mean and how are they related?

In principle, it is very easy to correctly assign the source when researching the literature. Because the designations primary and secondary already indicate what the issue is about:
  1. Primary literature: This means first-hand information. These can be the results of scientific work and research.
  2. Secondary literature: Here the publication is no longer from a single source, but created on the basis of primary literature. So a second person can deal with a master's thesis and have supplemented it.
  3. Tertiary literature: There is also a third type of source. These are dictionaries and encyclopedias that give a brief overview of an author's subject or work.

Examples of primary, secondary and tertiary literature

For example, poems can be assigned to primary literature. Any other first-hand literary work can also be meant. Thus, the bachelor thesis and master thesis are also primary literature. Dissertations, research contributions and everything else that flows in the context of first publications can also be assigned to the primary literature.

Again, the secondary literature cites the primary sources and provides an overview of the content of the original original content. In doing so, it supplements the primary source if possible. Examples of assignment are monographs on specialist topics, presentations and reviews.

If we wanted to elaborate further, we would come across tertiary literature. This summarizes the secondary literature and can be assigned to textbooks, encyclopedias and non-fiction books, for example.

Brief overview:
Primary literatureSecondary literatureTertiary literature
NovelsMonographs on specialist topicsTextbooks
Films and performancesReviewsNon-fiction
Letters and diary entriesArticles and reviews
empirical studyBiographies of historical people

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What kind of literature belongs in the scientific work?

If you are working on your bachelor's or master's thesis, then the literature research is an important part for you. Because once you have an overview of reliable works, your work will be much easier. But how should you deal with primary, secondary and tertiary literature? Regardless of the topic of your work, the following recommendations for literature research arise:
  • Primary literature: This should be in the first position when choosing your sources! Because here you can objectively interpret the writing and interpret it correctly.
  • Secondary literature: Here, on the other hand, use should be avoided if possible. The reason for this is that secondary sources can easily misinterpret the primary sources, which lowers the quality of your work.
  • Tertiary literature: This is just a rudimentary overview of the content for the initial sorting of the topics. It is inadequate for scientific work and should always be avoided.
Ultimately, however, the decision on how to deal with literature is yours. The right choice of sources lays the foundation for a master's thesis & Co. in scientific work, but your quality is decisive.

How can you correctly cite primary and secondary literature?

Basically, when citing primary to tertiary literature, the same applies as for the other citation style that you have surely learned. First there is the distinction between the direct quotation and the indirect quotation:
  1. Direct quote: Here you take over the direct wording and have to put the taken over in quotation marks when quoting.
  2. Indirect quote: In this case you are not taking over the content literally directly, but in a corresponding manner. This means that you don't have to put it in quotation marks, but you still have to mark it as third-party content.
In the latter case, put a “cf.” in the source for comparisons in front of the author's name. Otherwise, the question of the citation method arises in every scientific publication, whereby there is the German and the American citation method.

German & American citation style

If your professor gave you clear instructions, you need to follow them. A German way of quoting means for you that you cite the source in the footnote apparatus. If you work with writing programs such as Microsoft and Pages, functions are automatically included. This means that you simply click on insert footnote, whereupon the corresponding number appears in the correct place in the text and you correctly indicate the source at the bottom of the footnote apparatus as follows: Number of footnote (is inserted automatically). Last name, first name: title of the work. Place: publisher, year. Number of pages.

Next, the American way of quoting should be briefly explained, which can be described as much simpler than the way of quoting footnotes. Because with the American citation - also called Harvard citation - you simply put the following information after the quote within two brackets: last name, year, page number.

With that the matter is done and you are qualitatively fully on target. Of course, you must not forget the final collection of your sources at the end of your publication.

However, if you do everything fully as described here, then the path you have taken is correct. If available, provide additional information such as the edition. If you adhere to these guidelines, then you cannot complain about the citation style for primary literature and secondary literature in master's thesis and the like.

Example for the different quote types:


Primary quote
"Correct citation is important for a scientific paper" (Fischer, 2020, p. 31).

Secondary quote
“Correct citation is important for a scientific paper” (Schneider, 2021, quoted from Fischer, 2020, p. 12).

German citation (with footnotes):

Primary quote
"Correct citation is important for a scientific paper"1

Secondary quote
"Correct citation is important for a scientific paper"2

1Fischer: Quoting sources correctly, 4th edition, Hamburg, Germany, 2020, p. 31
2Schneider, 2021, quoted from Fischer, 2020, p. 12.


As you could see, the primary and secondary literature is nowhere near a great secret. Dealing with all types of sources is also very easy, which is simply based on the rules of citation. These rules are the real heart of the master's thesis, bachelor thesis and every other scientific challenge that you will encounter. Unfortunately, a lot of students leave points unnecessarily at this point and occasionally get bad grades: The professor's specifications are disregarded, which can easily be set at the beginning of the term paper in the format templates of the writing programs. Therefore - primary, secondary and tertiary literature or not - always take the professor's instructions to heart. So pay attention to the little things:
  • Define the desired margins individually
  • Pay attention to certain citation style - if desired; otherwise free choice
  • Take font sizes into account
  • Include mandatory sources
If you deliver all of this in a high quality, bad nightmares like plagiarism will be left without room and your work will be an appropriate scientific publication with the prospect of a good grade. We wish you every success in this endeavor!
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Even as a child, Ivo loved writing stories. Since 2012 he has been studying literature, culture and media studies in Siegen. During his studies at the university he gained a lot of experience in scientific writing and is happy to share it with you!

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