Secondary literature

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Secondary literature refers to specialist and non-fiction literature that deals scientifically with other texts (which are referred to as primary literature or sources ).


Texts that are typically the subject of secondary literature and are referred to as primary literature in this context include:

The term secondary literature originally comes from literary studies : the work of a poet (artistically creative) is the primary literature, the later academic occupation with this work, however, is the secondary literature. For example, Goethe's Faust is primary literature; a treatise on Faust (e.g. about characters, motifs, etc. from Faust ) is called secondary literature. Lexicon articles on Goethe's Faust with reference to the secondary literature are again tertiary literature (see below).

However, it should be noted that in the course of an academic study of texts, written material originally used as secondary literature can in turn become primary literature. This is the case when the texts written in a certain period of time are evaluated on a literary work. Then the secondary texts written in the past are read and treated as primary literature. The result can then be an investigation into the reception of the literary work.

In historical studies , primary literature is traditionally referred to as the source , the analytical representations as specialist literature or secondary literature. For the history of science , the secondary literature of the past can be used as a source. For example, the work of a famous nineteenth-century scientist can become a source for today's historian studying that famous scientist.

In historical studies, the secondary source must also be distinguished from secondary literature : the latter designates a source that provides information about what would have been found in a primary source . Example: A court report quoted from a letter that was before the court. The letter is the primary source, the protocol the secondary source, which becomes important when the letter itself has meanwhile been lost.

Natural sciences

In the natural sciences include review articles ( English : Reviews) for secondary literature as cited original publications - are expected to primary literature - even if they have appeared only a short time earlier. In chemistry , for example, the synthesis and characterization of one or more new, previously completely unknown substances is described in detail for the first time in the primary literature . However, if an author summarizes one or more groups of substances known from primary literature , this publication counts as secondary literature.

Tertiary literature

Literature which in turn evaluates secondary literature in a summarized manner and thus serves as an initial orientation is called tertiary literature . This includes dictionaries, reference works and encyclopedias .



  1. For a summary, cf. Peter Borowsky, Barbara Vogel , Heide Wunder: Introduction to History . 5th edition. Opladen 1989, p. 77 f.
  2. Explanation of the classification on ChemgaPedia - Chemistry Encyclopedia (May 6, 2008).
  3. Christopher Daase, Janet Mackenzie, Petra Stykow , Nikola Moosauer: Political science working techniques . Paderborn 2009, p. 191 f .; James Cook University overview ( Memento of March 30, 2012 in the Internet Archive ).