The Ultimate Guide to Primary, Secondary Sources, and How to Cite Them

June 24, 2024

Whenever you write an academic paper, essay, or project, you will be using sources extensively to support and give credibility to your work.

These sources are classified either as primary, secondary, or tertiary sources. You will also need to cite them properly in an accepted format.

The knowledge and skill of how to cite properly grows with experience, and it is perfectly okay to feel lost now and then.

Thanks to our extensive knowledge and expertise in academia, we at Help for Assessments are happy to bring you this detailed guide to teach you all you need to know about sources and how to cite them.

Our experience comes from years of providing first-class academic writing services for essays, dissertations, essays, projects, and many others.

Whenever you need someone to help you complete an assignment or project in time (and get you top marks), you can trust the team at Help for Assignments. Leave us your order here for a free no-obligation quote and get up to 50% off your first order!

Now that you know a bit about what we do, let’s get back to sources and citations. We will go through each one separately and learn how to identify primary and secondary sources. We will then explore each citation style separately with format examples, and finish with some advanced citing.

Primary Sources

Primary sources are those sources that provide firsthand data or accounts about a given subject.

They are given by an observer or participant of an event and are thus the closest possible representation of the actual event. They often represent the viewpoint, beliefs, or original thinking of the person(s) who recorded them.

Given how close primary sources get to the actual event, it is always expected that students will use primary sources rather than secondary or tertiary ones. Doing this reduces bias, possible errors, and misinterpretation as far as possible. It also gives a high level of credibility to the work being written, which itself becomes a secondary or tertiary source.

Since primary sources are direct accounts, some of the most important primary sources include:

  • Autobiographies and memoirs
  • Diaries and personal correspondence
  • Data from scientific experiments
  • Interviews, surveys, and fieldwork
  • Online communication, including posts on social media
  • Sketches, photographs, drawings, and posters
  • Public opinion polls
  • Speeches and oral histories
  • Legal documents including court records
  • Original documents including certificates, deeds, original IDs, and licenses
  • Official and non-official records of organizations and governments
  • Audio and video recordings
  • Technical reports
  • Scientific journals with experimental research results
  • Artifacts of all kinds

How to Identify Primary Sources

It can be confusing to identify primary sources if you have never done it before.

For example, is a book considered a primary source? What about a newspaper or magazine? Can online articles be primary sources?

One common mistake people make is to consider entire books or newspapers as courses in themselves.

Technically, a book, magazine, newspaper, or online article is a type or format of text. The articles or chapters contained therein can be any type of source.

For example, an article by a reporter who witnessed an event and wrote about it in a newspaper would be a primary source, same as eyewitness accounts of the same event.

Another article in the same paper interpreting presidential poll results would be a secondary source.

However, as stated, autobiographies would be primary sources, as well as speeches. The defining factor is always the originality of the source and how close it is to the actual event.

Anything that involves the interpretation of data or work done by someone else is a secondary source. They are more 'fresh' due to their immediacy to the actual thing.

Historical data such as manuscripts or books written in the same general period almost always qualify to be primary sources.

Archival materials such as financial documents and legal records are also primary sources. The same criteria also apply to digital records and online sources.

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources are those that discuss or interpret primary sources and data. They are also those that give comment upon, analyze, evaluate, summarize, or process primary sources.

Secondary sources are the most common type of source. Most books, scholarly journals, and monographs are of this kind. They can be highly focused, detailed, and written by respected authors yet remain secondary sources. Thus, students should quote secondary sources sparingly and with caution.

Secondary sources are often wonderful sources of primary sources though, so most students begin with them when researching. Their biographies sections provide more than enough primary sources to get you started on your research.

Often, you will find your instructors assigning secondary sources as texts for an assignment and course. That is because some of these are highly regarded. They can be written by authoritative figures in the field, feature an extensive foundational background, and be backed by solid facts. In such cases, you can cite these secondary sources.

Examples of secondary sources include:

  • Biographies
  • Magazine and journal articles written after the actual event
  • Literature reviews and review articles
  • Textbooks
  • Commentaries and treatises
  • Abstracts
  • History books
  • Scholarly journals and articles
  • Bibliographies

Time plays a significant part in determining whether a source is a primary or secondary one. Articles written during an event are usually regarded as primary sources, while those written later are deemed secondary sources.

In the same way, articles and some books written very long ago (especially by scholars) can be primary sources, while those written recently on the same subject will be secondary sources.

Tertiary Sources

Not everyone recognizes tertiary sources, with some people preferring to leave them under the tag of ‘secondary sources.’ However, for the sake of correctness, tertiary sources are usually those that are compiled from both primary and secondary sources. They include almanacs, chronologies, guidebooks, indexes, abstracts, manuals, and some textbooks.

With that information, you can easily identify primary and secondary sources. Let us now get into the bulk of the matter: how to cite them properly in either APA or MLA styles.

How to Cite Sources in Different Formats

APA Citation (updated to APA 7 released in 2019)
APA is an acronym of the American Psychological Association which developed the style in 1929 to help increase the readability of scientific and academic writings. Today, it is the most common style used in Education, Sciences, and Psychology.

At its simplest, APA follows the “Author - date” format for in-text citation with the author’s last name and year of publication appearing. For our example, let us use the book How do old people know what to do next? by Patrick M.A. Rabbitt and published by Springer.

How to Cite Sources in Different Formats 

APA Citation (updated to APA 7 released in 2019)

APA is an acronym of the American Psychological Association which developed the style in 1929 to help increase the readability of scientific and academic writings. Today, it is the most common style used in Education, Sciences, and Psychology.

At its simplest, APA format follows the “Author - date” format for in-text citation with the author’s last name and year of publication appearing. For our example, let us use the book How do old people know what to do next? by Patrick M.A. Rabbitt and published by Springer.

1. APA Reference Page Format

The citation format will vary depending on whether it is in-text or for the reference page. A citation for the latter would take this basic format:

Surname, Initials. (Date of publication). Title:Subtitle (Edition). Publisher. URL

These are the rules you should follow for the reference page:

  • Start on a new page at the end of the document
  • It should be centered on the page
  • It should be arranged alphabetically by the author’s first name or title if the author is not listed. Multiple works by the same author should be arranged by publication date.
  • You should have full references for each work cited in the work.
  • Always capitalize proper nouns including the author’s initials. 1. Capitalize all words that are four letters long. Four-letter words or shorter may be capitalized if they are verbs, nouns, pronouns, adjectives, or adverbs.
    2. The first word should always be capitalized, even if it is an ‘a’, ‘an’, or ‘the.’
    3. Capitalize the first letters of each word in a hyphenated compound word, e.g A Natural-Born Killer. If you choose to italicize the title in the reference list, do the same for in-text citations.
    4. If you choose not to italicize them, use double quotation marks instead, like so, “A Natural-Born Killer.”
  • Capitalize the first letters of each word in a hyphenated compound word, e.g A Natural-Born Killer. If you choose to italicize the title in the reference list, do the same for in-text citations. If you choose not to italicize them, use double quotation marks instead, like so, “A Natural-Born Killer.”
  • For works with up to 19 authors, include full surnames and initials of every author as listed in the source. If they are more, include the names of the first 19, then an ellipsis ( … )then the name of the last.

APA In-Text Citation Rules

When citing a work within the body of your text, you can choose to do a full quotation, quote an idea, paraphrase, or simply mention it in passing.

These are different styles for each of these scenarios, however, they must always correspond to the main citation in the reference list or bibliography.

1. Direct Quote

When citing a quote in-text, you only need the author’s last name and the year of publication. The full reference will be taken from the reference list if needed.

For a long quote taken directly from the text, the entire quote must be indented and placed between double quotation marks. The citation follows the quotation in parenthesis and always contains a page number or pages if there are more than one, like so: (Rabbitt, 1982, p.34-36)

For sources without page numbers such as online articles, you can include a paragraph number if available, like so: para. Xx. Other circumstances to consider include:

  • Where there are two authors, state both of their surnames with ‘and’ or ‘&’ between them, like so: Rabbitt & Smith, 1991.
  • For multiple authors, list all names for the first cite. For subsequent cites, list the first author’s name followed by et. al, like so: Rabbit, et. al, 1982. For six or more authors, only include the first author’s surname and et. al.
  • Where no author is listed, the title can also be used in in-text citations. It should be in double quotation marks where it appears.
  • When citing multiple works in the same parentheses, use the following rules: 
    1. If they are from the same author, state the surname then the dates of publication in chronological order, like so: (Rabbitt, 1982, 1991, 2005)
    2. If the are by different authors, use semicolons to separate them, like so: (Rabbitt, 1982, 2005; Smith, 2000)
  • When citing a group or organization, you should list its full names in the first cite and then shorten it in subsequent mentions.

How to Cite Secondary Sources in APA Format

When citing a secondary source, you are dealing with two sources. That is because you also have to cite the original source which the secondary one is based on.

In this case, you should start with the original author and date followed by the words ‘as cited in’ the author and date of the secondary source.

(Rabbitt, 1982 as cited in Lyon et ali., 2014)
You can omit the year of publication of the primary source if it is unknown.

APA in-text citation does not vary with source type, even for digital or online sources. The only difference appears when the author is unknown. However, reference list citations do vary depending on the type of source.

Citing Books in APA

Citing a book follows the same basic style we have shown. However, you will usually include the year of edition for the book in the following format:

Author Surname, Initials. (Edition(s).(Year). Title (ed.). Publisher URL

For work containing chapters written by different authors, a slightly different format is used to refer to specific chapters.

Chapter author surname, Initials. (Year). Chapter Title. In editor initial(s), Surname (Ed.) Title (ed., pp.chapter page range). Publisher URL

Here is an example of a work edited by S.T Williams and the chapter of interest written by Troy, B.N. (2015).

When citing an e-book, the format is the same except that you will substitute the source URL in place of the publisher.

According to APA 7 guidelines, you won’t have to add the add ‘Retrieved from.’ Instead, all you need to do is put in the source URL.

The same thing happens when you need to cite an e-book chapter if the book is written by different authors.

Citing Newspaper Articles in APA

Newspaper article citations follow this format in APA 7

Article author surname, Initials. (Year, Month Day). Title. Title of Newspaper, Column/Section, p. or pp. URL

Citing Journals and Journal Articles in APA 

Journal and magazine articles are different from book citations because the publisher is not included.

In its place, you will have the journal title, volume number, issue number, and page number. The same basic format applies to all publications with issues.

Article author surname, Initials. (Year). Article title. Journal Title, Volume Number (Issue number/part number optional), page numbers. URL or DOI

For example,

How to Cite A Magazine Article in APA

The basic structure for a magazine article citation is almost similar to that of a journal, only without the issue number numbers.

Author Surname, Initials. (Year, month day). Title. Title of Magazine, pp.

How to Cite Non-Text Media in APA: Films, Songs, and TV Programmes

APA also has specific citation formats for non-print media such as songs, images, and video. All these follow a specific format as given below:

Surname, Initials. (Publication date). Title of image [Media type]. URL

Citing Images:

Citing Films:

Producer surname, Initial (Producer), & Director surname, Initial (Director). (Year of Release). Title of Film [Motion Picture]. Country of Origin: Studio.

For example:

How to Cite a TV Program:

Writer surname, Initials (Writer), & Director Surname, Initials (Director). (Year of Release). Episode title [Television series episode]. In Executive producer surname, initials (Executive Producer), TV Series Name. City, State of original channel: Network, Studio or Distributor

For example:

Citing a Song:

Writer surname, Initials. (Year of Copyright). Song Title [Recorded by Artist Name] On Album title [Medium of Recording]. Location of recording label: label. (Date of Recording)

For example:

How to Cite a Website in APA

Citing a website follows the same basic structure as a book.

Author Surname, Initials. (Year, month day). Title. URL

Still Confused? 

Those are the rules of APA citations for various sources, both primary and secondary. We have gone into some of the advanced sources so that you can always have a reference no matter what you are citing.

There is still a lot you will not find for which you might need to refer to APA's official guidebook.

Remember that you can always get all this out of the way. Just let Help for Assessments handle that tricky project or assignment for you.

MLA Citation Guide and Rules

MLA is short for Modern Language Association, an association started in 1883 as a non-profit learned society to promote the study of languages and literature in the world.

In 1951, the first MLA Style Sheet was drawn up and published by the association as a recommendation to guide the uniformity of scholarly manuscripts. It served as a precursor to the highly acclaimed MLA Handbook, published first in 1977.

This brief history is crucial if you are to understand how MLA works because the style focuses more on ease and simplicity rather than structure and format like the APA style.

While it has almost as many guidelines, the MLA handbook is more flexible and lets the author cite as they think is best for their readers. The idea behind this ideology is that every author and piece of writing is different, and allowing them to customize makes things a whole lot easier.

We can use the same simple approach as we go exploring MLA citation gules and guidelines.

MLA Citation General Guidelines (MLA 8)

MLA uses a simple two-part parenthetical system to document sources in-text as well as the Works Cited (similar to the Reference List in APA style).

It encourages the author to keep the style as brief and as clear as possible, including only the information needed to identify the source. Usually, just the author's name and a page number are enough for the parenthesis.

Other general guidelines include:

  • Place the reference as close to the source as is possible. Usually, it is to be inserted where a natural pause in the sentence would occur, preferably just before a period.
  • Information in the parentheses should complement rather than repeat what is contained in the text.
  • The parenthetical reference precedes the punctuation mark that concludes the sentence, phrase, or clause that contains the cited material.
  • Digital and online sources are cited just as if they were print media, complete with page or paragraph numbering where necessary.
  • The 8th edition of MLA introduced the use of containers, which is the overall work containing the citation source. This includes magazines for articles, albums for songs, and books for chapters.

MLA In-text Citations Guidelines

MLA follows an ‘author, page’ format for in-text citations designed to be as simple and short as possible so as not to detract from the rest of the text.

This short citation should always coincide with the first few words on the same citation entry in the Works Cited section. In other words, the signal phrase must match to help readers find the reference entry quickly.

Using our example of the 1982 work by Rabbitt, we might cite a section of it as follows:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur elit. Aliquam turpis elit ... (Rabbitt, 1982).

If you are not sure about the publication date, MLA allows you to use 'circa.' before the approximate year.

Also, if you mentioned the author in the citation, you need not include their name and instead only record the page number.

However, you can only do this if the name matches the first name in the corresponding citation entry.

Where no author is known, a shortened form of the title of the work should be used instead of the author's name. It has to be italicized and the signal phrase should start with the same words as the entry in Works Cited.

MLA Works Cited Citation Rules

In the Works Cited section, that is where you will have the full listing of the work complete with the title, author name, and more.

To understand the full citation, let us look at the general format of MLA citation.

Author names. “Title of source”. Title of Container, Other contributors, version, Numbers, Publisher, Publication date.


  • The Works Cited list must begin in a new page at the end of the document
  • The list must be ordered alphabetically by the last name of the first author or the title if the author is unknown. Alphabets are ignored.
  • Multiple works by the same author are ordered chronologically, and if in the same year they are arranged alphabetically by title.
  • All entries are double spaced
  • Second and subsequent lines should be indented at 0.5in/1.27cm from the left margin, forming a harming indent.
  • Multiple works by the same author can be identified by the author's full names for the first entry, and subsequent ones can be replaced by ‘- - -’

Citing a Work By Multiple Authors Using MLA

Where there are only two authors, you list both of them by their names either in-text within the citation or in the parentheses.

If there are three or more or them, you list only the last name of the first author and add et al. for the rest.

Both the in-text and Works Cited entries might face a few changes as we will see below.

  • For authors with the same surname, use initials to differentiate them like so: (J. Mitchell 76) and (M. Mitchell 100-120)
  • Where no page numbers are listed, use a paragraph or chapter number with the corresponding abbreviations e.g. ch. For chapter, para. For paragraphs. However, do not use pp. Or. p. to designate page numbers.
  • When citing social media, you can use online aliases instead of actual names.
  • You only italicize the title of a book if you are quoting it in its entirety. Otherwise, if you are only quoting a chapter in a book or an article in a journal, place the title in double quotation marks, a period, then an italicized and properly capitalized name of the container source.

How to Cite Various Sources in MLA

Edited and Translated Books:

These ones follow the same basic format with the addition of the editor's name, which is added after the author lists.

The name can also come in the contributor's list by preceding them by the words 'edited by' or 'translated by'. The format is also follows.

Last name, first name, editor. Title. Title of container, Contributors, Version, Number, Publisher, Year of publication. It can also take the following format:
Last name, first name. Title. Title of container, edited by Contributors, Version, Number, Publisher, Year of publication.

An example of this would be:

For example:

You can also choose to focus on that particular translation, in which case you would substitute the author’s name for the translator’s and include that title in parentheses.

Citing a Chapter

When citing a chapter in a book, include the chapter's title just before the book title in double quotation marks and put a period between them. You will also include the range of pages between which the chapter is found, as below.

Author’s names. Chapter title. Book Title, Contributors, Version, Number, Publisher, Year of publication, Page number or range

For example:

The same basic structure is also followed when you are citing a work in an anthology, that is, a collection of works under the same book. MLA allows you to cross-reference chapters or works in the same book with only one entry in Works Cited.

Citing Magazines, Journals, and Newspapers in MLA

The basic format for citing either of these types of publications is the same.
Author’s name. “Article Title”. Title of container, Contributors, version, numbers, date of publication, location. Title of database, DOI or URL

Journal example:

Magazine example:

Newspaper example:

Citing Government Documents, The Bible, and International Documents

Usually, government documents have no single writer credited for them. Use the name of the agency that published that document instead. The same applies to international documents.


When citing the Bible, you will need to cite which edition and version you’re using in your first citation. In subsequent mentions, so long as you’re using the same one, you can list only the book, chapter, and verse in parentheses.



MLA Citation for Sources Quoted in Other Sources

When you are citing an indirect source, it would be much better if you followed the source to get to the original and use that instead.

However, if you just need to use the quoted text, you can use the abbreviation qtd. and cite the secondary source, like so: (qtd. in Weisman 259).

MLA Citation for Non-Print Media: Films, Songs, Images, and Videos

MLA also sets out the format for citing non-print media. The basic format for these is the same, however, MLA also includes timestamps for timed media such as speeches, podcasts, films, and songs.

Citing Images:

Creator’s names. “Title”. Website Title, Contributors, Reproduction, number, date, URL.

For example:

example 4

Citing a Film

The basic format used when citing a film is:

Director’s name. “Title of film”. Contributors, Distributor, year of release. Medium

If your focus is on the film instead of the director, you can swap the placing of the title and the director's name like so:

“Title of film.” Directed by director’s name, contributors, Distributor, release year, medium.

MLA 8 doesn’t require the medium of release, but it can be an advantage to the reader to include it.


film example mla

TV Series Citation: 

“Episode Title”. Program title, created by Creator Name, contributors, season #, episode #. Network, Year of Publication.

For example:

tv series mla

The basic structure for citing music in MLA is:

Author’s name. “Title of Track”. Album Title, other contributors, version, recording label, year of publication.

For example:

tv series mla 2
Citing a Web Page in MLA:

The MLA format for citing a web page is:

Last name of author, first name. “Title of page or document”. Title of website, date, DOI or URL.

For example:

web page mla

Citing in MLA is much easier due to it having the same general format for almost everything. With practice, you won’t even need to keep referring to books for the right format.

That is the whole goal: that you spend more time in your research where it is needed.

While we have discussed both APA and MLA, a third, albeit less popular, style exists called Chicago style is also used. You will find it especially in business-related publications, but it is not widely used in academia.

Do You Need Help with Essay Writing and Citation?

Do you know how else you can save time? Letting us do all the work for you. Citing is always laborious work, no matter the format you choose.

It is very easy to make a simple mistake, and even using a comma where a period should be can change the whole meaning of the entry.

The gurus at Help for Assessment know citations inside out and are always up-to-date on the latest iterations. We are experienced in APA, MLA, and Chicago styles, making us the best choice for any academic assignment and project work.

You can explore our services here and get our writing and citing experts working on your it right away. 

About the author 

Antony W is a professional writer and coach at Help for Assessment. He spends countless hours every day researching and writing great content filled with expert advice on how to write engaging essays, research papers, and assignments.

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