Wednesday, 18 November 2020

How to cite secondary sources

Ah: student questions are wonderful. We snap off a reply, then stop to ponder: how did I know that? I love those questions that make us pause to then think through to the why. And sometimes they simply make us stop to think "Why" with an "on earth" tacked onto the end!

I was asked by a student how they should cite one book, when that book was citing another source. This is a secondary source. What is immensely confusing about this particular label is that we get a secondary source where the author we are reading is citing another author. The first author - the one we are NOT reading - is the primary source. The author we are reading is the secondary source. From our point of view, it feels like it should be the other way around. So, for argument's sake, lets assume that we are reading McMahon and Watson's 2015 book on Career Assessment. They cite Parsons’ (1909) in their introduction.

Once we wrap our heads around the terms, we now need to consider when we are drawing from McMahon and Watson, should we cite the primary author (Parsons) or the secondary author (McMahon and Watson)?

The first thing I ask my students is: "which is more honest?" Do we want to pretend we have read Parsons, or do we own the fact that we have read McMahon and Watson? It becomes a pretty easy decision when we phrase this in terms of honesty.

That done, we need to decide how we phrase our secondary citation. There are many ways we can go at undergraduate level:
  • We can simplify and simply quote our secondary source. We can do this as "In 2015, McMahon and Watson reported that..."; or, even better, "[whatever it is we want to say]" (McMahon & Watson, 2015);
  • We can mention the primary source: for example, "Parsons, as mentioned by McMahon and Watson in 2015, found that...", or "Drawing on the work of Parsons, Watson and McMahon detail this theory as... (2015)". We can put the original year in there, "Parsons (1909), as mentioned by McMahon and Watson in 2015, found that...", or "Drawing on the work of Parsons (1909), Watson and McMahon detail this theory as... (2015)"... or even better, "[whatever it is we want to say]" (McMahon & Watson, 2015, citing Parsons, 1909);
  • We can go and read Parsons in the original. It is considered best practice is to always go back to the primary source - the 'horse's mouth', so to speak. Then we can cite both authors.
As we are all well aware, it is not always possible to read the original. And hopefully the intention of this post is clear: we must be honest about whom we have read, and not over-claim.

There is a second element to secondary sources, though: that of referencing. If we have not read the primary source, we must only reference the secondary source. So - unless we have read Parsons ourselves - we only reference the work we read: McMahon and Watson.

Hopefully that helps!



  • McMahon, M., & Watson, M. (Eds.). (2015). Career assessment: Qualitative approaches. Springer.
  • Parsons, F. (1909). Choosing a Vocation. Gay & Hancock Ltd.

No comments :

Post a Comment

Thanks for your feedback. The elves will post it shortly.