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Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper: Tiertiary Sources


A tertiary source consolidates and organizes primary and secondary sources together into one source in order to facilitate quick access to information. Tertiary sources are good starting points for research projects because they often extract the essential meaning or most important aspects of large amounts of information into a convenient format.

Value of Tertiary Sources

The distinctions between primary, secondary, and tertiary sources are frequently ambiguous depending upon the context in which an item is used. Some writers don't make the distinction between tertiary and secondary because both types of materials do not represent original works [primary sources]. However, for the purposes of reviewing the literature, it is important to understand how tiertiary sources can contribute to your overall search for relevant information about the research problem.

Reviewing tertiary source material can be of value in improving your overall research paper because they:

  • Often compile factual information in one place. Searching for the data in mutliple sources takes time [e.g., searching for names of heads of state in an almanac],
  • Lead the reader to additional sources. For example, rather than citing in your literature review a long list of additional sources on a topic, you can simply cite to a comprehensive bibliography compiled by another researcher,
  • Distill large quantities of closely related information or data [e.g., a statistical compendium], and
  • Often contain references and bibliographies that can point you to key primary and secondary sources.

Examples of tiertiary sources you could review as part of your overall study include:
    * Abstracts
    * Almanacs
    * Bibliographies [also considered secondary]
    * Chronologies
    * Dictionaries and encyclopedias [also considered secondary]
    * Directories
    * Fact books
    * Handbooks
    * Indexes, databases, search engines, and bibliographies used to locate primary and secondary sources
    * Manuals
    * Statistical compendiums
    * Textbooks and course readers [may also be secondary]

Tertiary sources also include any type of user-contributed online resource such as Wikipedia.

Comparison for Sources in Selected Social Science Disciplines


Primary Source

Secondary Source

Tertiary Source


NASDAQ stock quotes

Trade journal article on NASDAQ stock trends

ABI/Inform database


Transcript of television news program

Newspaper article about person interviewed on the news

Guide to television news programs


Bureau of the Census population datasets

Working paper on demographics in California and small business growth

Statistical Abstract of California


Focus group interview of teachers

Journal article about teaching methods

Handbook of effective teaching methods

Environmental Studies

Fieldwork data measuring glacial melting

Book on the impact of climate change

World atlas


Archival maps of Los Angeles

Website of digitized maps

Finding aid of maps held at the Los Angeles Public Library

International Relations 

Diplomatic cables between the United States and Japan

Journal article examining foreign relations between the U.S. and Japan

Columbia International Affairs Online database


Testimony before Congress

Television news report on Congressional hearing

Congressional committee website

Political Science 

Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States

Biography of a president

Encyclopedia about American presidents


Clinical notes

Journal article about the psychological condition

Mental Measurements Yearbook

Social Work 

Fieldwork observation of prison conditions

Research report on prison conditions

Directory of prison facilities


Survey of adolescent addiction to alcohol

Journal article about alcoholism among young adults

Textbook on addictions