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Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper

Offers detailed guidance on how to develop, organize, and write a college-level research paper in the social and behavioral sciences.


A tertiary source consolidates and organizes primary and secondary source materials 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 can be rather ambiguous depending upon the context in which an item is used. Some writers don't make a distinction between tertiary and secondary because both types of materials do not represent original works [i.e., primary sources]. However, for the purposes of reviewing the literature, it is important to understand how tertiary sources can contribute to the overall process of locating relevant information about a research topic.

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

  • Consolidate information in one place. Searching for information published in multiple sources takes time. A tertiary source, such as an directory, saves time because all the relevant information is compiled in one place.
  • Facilitate comparing and contrasting information. One of the purposes of tertiary sources is to organize a lot of information in a way that facilitates easily comparing and/or contrasting the content. The information is formatted specifically to help the reader understand complex information or data.
  • Publish regularly over a period of time. Some tertiary sources are published in predictable intervals, such as, almanacs, directories, or handbooks. This means they can be important sources of consistently presented information over time, providing a longitudinal perspective about the information they present.
  • Distill large quantities of closely related information or data. A dictionary, specialized encyclopedia, or a statistical compendium can be used to review a large amount of information that would otherwise be difficult to synthesize and differentiate.
  • Often contain references to additional sources. Many tertiary sources, in particular bibliographies, can be efficient places to go to locate key primary and secondary sources about a topic. In this way, they can be a good starting point when reviewing prior research on a topic.

Examples of tertiary 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]

Note that 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 about NASDAQ stock trends

ABI/Inform database


Transcript of television news program

Newspaper article about person interviewed on television

Guide to television news programs

Criminal Justice

Data gathered on prison conditions

Research report on prison conditions

Directory of prison facilities


U.S. Bureau of the Census population datasets

Working paper about demographic changes in California

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 in the 1960s

Website of digitized maps

Finding aid of city maps held at the Los Angeles Public Library

International Relations 

De-classified diplomatic cables between the United States and Japan

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

A specialized encyclopedia about the history of Japanese foreign affairs


Testimony in a hearing before Congress

Television news report on the 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 of patient treatment goals and plans

Journal article about a psychological condition

Mental Measurements Yearbook

Public Administration Meeting minutes of the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles Journal article on the housing crisis in Los Angeles county Statistical compendium of housing prices

Social Work 

Counts of homeless people in Los Angeles

Report on access to shelter for the homeless

Directory of organizations devoted to helping the homeless


Interviews of anti-war protesters

Journal article about anti-war activism among young adults

Textbook on social movement theories

Urban and Regional Planning Zoning plan for the city of Santa Monica Research report on urban planning in Los Angeles Directory of new businesses