Using Secondary Sources

Reference-Book-1I typically don’t require students in my lower division courses to use secondary sources in their papers. However, in my upper division classes, I almost always require them to use at least one secondary source, and to use it properly in order to add some scholarly depth to their writing project for the term.

In a piece of scholarly writing, secondary sources are meant to augment the author’s engagement with the primary text(s) that lay(s) at the center of the paper’s topic. Secondary sources illustrate that the author is aware of the important literature and debates surrounding the topic, and how this material relates to the arguments they are making in the paper. These citations allow the reader to look up these sources to:

  • locate the origin of an idea, argument, or debate;
  • see how the author’s argument disagrees or differs with a secondary source;
  • see how the author’s argument agrees with or complements or extends the views of a secondary source;
  • see how the secondary source agrees with or complements or supports the point the author is making;
  • see how a passage from a secondary source illustrates the point the author is making.

In professional philosophical writing, secondary sources are typically books or articles from scholarly journals or academic publishers. However, secondary sources might also include articles from respected journalistic outlets, as well as information from reliable online sources.

It should go without saying that secondary sources should be objective and independent, and present timely information relevant to the topic that comes from credible scholars or authoritative institutions.

For example, an article from the New York Times concerning the spread of covid would generally be preferred over one from the Fox News website, though a detailed press release from the Centers for Disease Control would be preferable to either.

Similarly, if I’m writing an essay about Edmund Husserl, a secondary citation to the latest book by internationally-renowned Husserl scholar Dan Zahavi is going to carry far more weight than one citing a paper written by a college freshman twenty years ago who had only taken one introductory philosophy class.

Since secondary literature in philosophical scholarship can be forbiddenly technical, it might be easier for students to deploy secondary sources in the service of the last two bullet points above. For the same reason, I am open to students using sources from respected journalistic outlets and reliable online sources to write their upper division papers.

Finally: there is no need to engage in a wordy introduction to the author of the secondary source in the body of the text. Just say, According to Zahavi… or According to Husserl scholar Dan Zahavi…. No need to say, According to professor of philosophy Dan Zahavi, director of the Center for Subjectivity Research at the University of Copenhagen…. As readers of a scholarly essay on Husserl, we don’t care about Zahavi’s biography or professional bona fides; we care about what he says about Husserl. Briefly transition into the quote or paraphrase, cite it properly, and then move on to the next point.

© D. R. Koukal