Tertiary Sources — An Illustrated Overview

02.03.23 Types of sources Time to read: 3min

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As a student, you must understand the different research sources you will find for citing your academic papers. Territory sources are vital tools in geographical and historical research, providing in-depth insights into specific regions and their development. When working with sources, it’s essential to ensure their credibility and relevance to obtain accurate and comprehensive information. These sources not only shape our understanding of territories but also guide policy-making and regional studies.

Tertiary Sources – In a Nutshell

Research materials can be broadly classified into primary and secondary sources, with tertiary sources serving as a bridge between the two.

A tertiary source offers oversight of information contained in primary and secondary sources, without original analyses or interpretations.

Some common tertiary sources include:
• Bibliographies and indexes
• Encyclopaedias and dictionaries
• Guidebooks, manuals, almanacs, and directories
• Databases
• Textbooks

Definition: Tertiary sources

Tertiary sources help students and researchers collect, index, organize, and compile secondary and primary sources. They list the other types of sources and give background information on various topics, e.g., how dictionaries and databases do. You may use a tertiary source to understand a topic better, but you cannot use it as a citation.

In an academic paper, you should mainly use secondary and primary sources, since they offer information on which you can base your thoughts and ideas. Remember that the rules for choosing sources and citing them vary greatly depending on your study field, so clarify this with your professor when in doubt.

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How to identify tertiary sources

Tertiary sources do not offer original insights or analyses like primary or secondary sources. However, a tertiary source may depend on your research question and how you use this source.

For instance, encyclopedias are mainly considered tertiary sources. However, a research study focusing on developing comprehensive writing may use encyclopedias entries as evidence, making them a primary source.

Ask the following questions to identify which source is tertiary:

  • Are you using the source to gain background information or analyse the source itself?
  • Does the source summarise information from other sources? (Tertiary source)
  • Does the source offer original content? (Primary source)
  • Does the source evaluate other sources? (Secondary source)

Examples of tertiary sources

Tertiary sources offer a wide range of relevant information, including broad overviews, key terms, lists of reliable sources, and definitions. You can find many sources offline (in your local library or bookshop), including in textbooks and directories. Some reliable online sources include guidebooks and indexes.

Here is how these sources help:

  • Manuals, textbooks, dictionaries, and encyclopaedias: These sources define and give overviews of topics based on secondary and primary sources.
  • Timelines, databases, directories, bibliographies, and indexes: These offer little textual insight but organise crucial information and help you locate primary and secondary sources.

When to use tertiary sources

Although tertiary sources can be credible, you cannot attribute them to a single author, and they lack the specialized knowledge expected in scholarly sources. Therefore, you cannot cite them in your research paper.

However, you can still use these sources in the early stages of your research process to:

  • Identify key scholars
  • Establish background information
  • Understand emerging debates in your study field
  • Identify relevant terms and keywords


Most universities do not accept tertiary sources mainly because they are not credible enough. Although you can use these sources during early research, you cannot base your writing on them or cite them.

Since these sources summarise both secondary and primary sources, incorporating them during research enables you to lay a strong foundation and makes the entire writing process less time-consuming.

Tertiary sources show an overview of a topic and rarely cite other materials. Therefore, such a source does not show opinions or biases toward a topic.

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