Secondary literature

Learning objectives

By the end of this module, you will be able to:

  • recognise different forms of secondary literature.
  • distinguish between peer-reviewed and other forms of secondary literature.

Secondary literature is the mass of published materials that interpret, evaluate, or analyze the evidence derived from primary sources.

As such, such materials are at least one step removed from their subject. These sources take a wide range of forms:

  • academic books.
  • journal articles.
  • documentaries.
  • biographies.
  • annotations or commentaries on primary sources.
  • textbooks.
  • magazine articles.

Secondary sources provide a factual context or interpretative framework for your analysis. Their limitations are that any fresh account introduces a degree of interpretation. When we read secondary sources, we are viewing events through an additional series of filters. The account is shaped by the author's interpretations, bias and preconceptions.


Peer-reviewed journal articles are an important form of secondary source.

When a researcher intends to publish in an academic journal, he or she will send an article to the journal editor. If the editor thinks that the article is potentially worth publishing, it will be sent to two or more expert reviewers. These reviewers will read the article to assess its quality in terms of methodology, originality, significance and clarity. The reviewers' comments then go back to the researcher, who is usually required to make improvements before the article is published. The same process occurs when a paper is submitted to an editorial board before it is read to an academic audience at a conference.

An article or paper that passes peer-review is not necessarily correct. The process of checking doesn't end with publication. Instead, publication is the beginning of the process of replication and review through which promising research is exposed to the critical attention of the wider academic community.

Why is peer-reviewed research better?

Peer-review ensures minimum standards. It gives authors the benefit of expert advice and is intended to weed out poor research or obvious attempts at academic fraud. Another benefit is indirect. Because authors know that their article will receive critical review, they will make every effort to anticipate objections and to produce the best possible research. Where an article or a conference paper is not subject to peer-review, these checks are absent.

New sources of peer-reviewed research

Finding and accessing relevant secondary literature is often a time-consuming task, but there are some short-cuts. You are probably familiar with the range of databases that the Library offers to students and staff.  There are also a range of other resources, if you know where to look.  Academic social network sites are a new Web-based resource that are worth investigating.

ResearchGate and are social networking sites that allow researchers to share papers, ask and answer questions, and find collaborators. They are particularly good as a source of hard-to-find book chapters from smaller academic presses.


This module dealt with the following:

  • different types of secondary literature.
  • the distinction between peer-reviewed and other forms of secondary literature.

Grey literature