Primary Research vs Secondary Research: Definitions, Differences, and Examples

Primary Research vs Secondary Research: Definitions, Differences, and Examples
Imed Bouchrika, Phd by Imed Bouchrika, Phd
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

Research as a discipline employs a wide variety of methods. While scientists conduct experiments, sociologists often conduct interviews and surveys. Archived texts and artifacts are what historians use. To collect data and test hypotheses, researchers may use primary research or secondary research.

Despite the differences between these two research methods, primary research vs. secondary research both provide advantages that support specific research objectives. These two forms of research help researchers achieve their goals, and both can prove to be helpful in ensuring that a study is well-researched.

Primary Research vs Secondary Research Table of Contents

  1. What is Primary Research?
  2. Types of Primary Research
  3. Common Pitfalls of Primary Research
  4. Ethical Considerations of Primary Research
  5. What is Secondary Research?
  6. Sources of Secondary Research
  7. Important Considerations of Secondary Research
  8. Examples of Primary Research vs Secondary Research
  9. How to Use Primary and Secondary Research

What is primary research?

Primary research refers to research that has involved the collection of original data specific to a particular research project (Gratton & Jones, 2010). When doing primary research, the researcher gathers information first-hand rather than relying on available information in databases and other publications.

This type of research is often carried out with the goal of producing new knowledge, which is why primary research is also referred to as original research. By doing primary research, researchers aim to answer questions that haven’t been answered or even asked before. This degree of originality sets primary research apart from secondary research.

Additionally, original research is crucial for researchers aiming to be published in academic journals, which currently number over 40,000. The degree of originality of the research is a major criterion for publication (Callaham, 2002).

Types of Primary Research

Primary research can be done through various methods, but this type of research is often based on principles of the scientific method (Driscoll, 2010). This means that in the process of doing primary research, researchers develop research questions or hypotheses, collect and analyze measurable, empirical data, and draw evidence-based conclusions. If you want to understand more about conducting an empirical study, you can check out the guide on what is empirical research.

The most common types of primary research are outlined below.

  • Surveys – This is a data-collection approach where individuals are asked to provide answers to particular research questions, such as about their emotions, beliefs, attitudes, and behavior (Mrug, 2012). This form of questioning tends to be less flexible than interviews due to the fixed nature of the questions. However, surveys are useful for collecting information from large groups of people.
  • Interviews – Interviews are a convenient way of collecting information from individuals or small groups of people. Researchers can also use interviews to get expert opinions on their fields of study.
  • ObservationThis primary research method involves observing people, occurrences, and other variables important to the research or study. Observation entails measuring and recording quantitative or qualitative data. This research method is useful for gaining knowledge without the biased viewpoint sometimes present in interviews.
  • Data analysis – Data analysis requires collecting data and organizing them according to criteria developed by the researcher. This primary research method is useful for discovering trends or patterns in data.
  • Focus groups – Researchers can also gather information through focus groups, which typically comprise up to 12 people. Focus groups participate in a guided discussion of the topic, usually facilitated by the researcher. This qualitative data-gathering method is often used to gain a deeper appreciation of social problems (Nyumba et al., 2018).

Research methods used can also vary, depending on the industry for which the research is needed. For instance, the chart below indicates the emerging research methods used in market research.

Source: GRIT Insights Practice Report 2019

Common Pitfalls of Primary Research

There are a few pitfalls that researchers encounter when doing primary research. The most common challenges of primary research, along with recommendations to overcome these potential setbacks, are provided below.

Cost, time, and effort

Due to its nature, primary research tends to require more time, especially compared to secondary research. Primary research methods also require the researcher to be more involved, since they carry out the data collection themselves. Additionally, primary research is more expensive compared to secondary research.

Fortunately, technology helps ease the burden of doing original research today. IOT (Internet of Things) technology, for instance, can be leveraged to gain granular visibility into different sets of data (Sharma, 2019). IOT technology is particularly useful to researchers handling big data. For instance, devices with IoT sensors are constantly collecting data from users and transmitting them to the cloud. Companies can, in turn, use the data gathered by these devices to gain a better understanding of their target market and support marketing campaigns and improve customer service levels. 

Source: Greenbook Research Industry Trends Report

Biased methodology or sampling

If a survey or interview is based on biased research methodology, the results will be biased as well. A common type is the so-called ‘response bias, which occurs when participants answer survey or interview questions systematically while in a certain perspective (Wilson & Joye, 2019). For instance, researchers can inadvertently structure questions to encourage participants to respond in a particular way. Questions can also be too confusing or complex for participants to answer accurately. One way to avoid using biased questions is to ensure that these questions are clear, straightforward, and properly constructed.

Researchers can also unintentionally use biased sampling in doing primary research. For instance, a researcher who wants to study social media use among high school students may fail to take into account students who participate in homeschooling. To ensure that a study’s participants are truly representative of a population, sampling should be random and as diverse as possible (Simundić, 2013). This means all subjects have an equal probability of being included in the study.

Too much focus on one or two factors

It is understandable that researchers will not be able to study all factors related to their specific topic. However, these factors should still be considered in the data analysis phase. Putting too much focus on only one or two factors that directly affect your study can prevent you from achieving thorough, well-rounded research.

For instance, if you are studying rates of parking shortage on university campuses, it is not enough to consider only university students who own cars. Factors such as students who commute, faculty members who drive, and the accessibility of other transportation methods must also be considered so you can provide a complete view of the issue.

Finding valid, relevant data

Despite the researcher’s best efforts, participants sometimes will not take the study seriously. For instance, survey participants may provide inaccurate, irrelevant answers to survey questions. Such answers have a significant effect on the conclusion in research, so researchers must take extra caution in examining the results of surveys or interviews. You have the option to not include questionable information gathered from these methods. However, this is not to say that responses that go against your hypothesis should be dismissed.

Ethical Considerations of Primary Research

Aside from its pitfalls, primary research also requires careful consideration of research ethics. This is particularly important for research methods that involve human participants. In the United States, for instance, researchers are often held to the Federal Policy for the Protection of Human Subjects. Also called the Common Rule, these regulations require researchers to obtain and document informed consent and include additional protections for vulnerable research subjects, such as children and pregnant women (Federal Policy for the Protection of Human Subjects, 1991).

Various organizations and industries typically have their own set of research ethics to abide by, but these different ethical research guidelines tend to follow the same principles. The following are some commonly followed ethical considerations for primary research:

  • Voluntary participation – Researchers must obtain and document express consent or permission from participants before they are involved in any aspect of the primary research.
  • Confidentiality and anonymity – Participants’ identities must be kept anonymous when results are written or published. This is important because participants may disclose personal information in interviews or surveys.
  • Safety and dignity – Research participants should not be subjected to harm in any way, and respect for the dignity of research participants should be prioritized.

What is secondary research?

While primary research involves active participation from the researcher themselves, secondary research involves the summary or synthesis of data and literature that has been organized and published by others. When doing secondary research, researchers use and analyze data from primary research sources.

Secondary research is widely used in many fields of study and industries, such as legal research and market research. In the sciences, for instance, one of the most common methods of secondary research is a systematic review. In a systematic review, scientists review existing literature and studies on a certain topic through systematic methods, appraising all available studies to synthesize their findings (Fitchburg State University, 2020).

The following table highlights the key differences between primary research and secondary research.

Primary ResearchSecondary Research
Data is collected by the researcher themselvesData is collected by other researchers
Based on raw dataBased on data that has been previously analyzed
High level of involvement from the researcherLow level of involvement from the researcher
Data collected fits the researcher’s needs Existing data may or may not fit the researcher’s requirements
Expensive, time-consumingFast, low-cost

Sources of Secondary Research

Researchers have plenty of options to explore when it comes to doing secondary research. The following sources can assist researchers in doing secondary research:

  • Academic peer-reviewed journals – These often include original research undertaken by authors or researchers themselves.
  • Published books and articles – Many books reference primary-source materials, along with an analysis from the author.
  • Government agencies – Many government agencies maintain archives or databases of documents and reports, which contain data that can prove to be useful to researchers.
  • Educational institutions – Colleges and universities do a significant amount of research and produce data that can be requested by researchers.
  • Commercial information sources – Information sources such as newspapers, magazines, and TV shows can also prove to be useful sources for secondary research. These sources provide firsthand information and insights into political agendas, market research, and economic developments for instance (Bhat, 2020).

The Internet makes secondary research significantly easier for researchers today. Many government agencies and educational institutions, for instance, make their data available online so researchers can easily download information for their use. There are even web applications for creating world clouds to visualize the frequency of keywords for topics in databases. If you are interested in these applications, you can check out our best word cloud generator list.

Source: International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers

Important Considerations of Secondary Research

As with primary research, a researcher also stands to encounter certain issues when doing secondary research. The following are the most important considerations of doing such research method:

Careful evaluation of credibility

Secondary sources must always be evaluated carefully to ensure that it not only fulfills the researcher’s requirements but also meets the criteria of sound scientific practices (Hox & Boejie, 2005). A careful evaluation of collected data and sources ensures that the data can be used as the basis for further research.

For instance, available data may have been collected for a different specific purpose, which may result in deliberate or unintentional bias (Stewart & Kamins, 1993). Such data could prove to be detrimental to a research or study.

Relevance and timeliness of data

Another potential problem inherent in the secondary research process is finding data that is relevant to the researcher’s interest. Secondary data may not be appropriate to the researcher’s purposes, a factor that complicates the process of doing secondary research.

In many cases, secondary data is also old data (Stewart & Kamins, 1993). This is particularly true for census data, which may take up to two years to be collected and made available to the general public. As such, researchers must take into consideration the period during which the data was collected and published.

In this regard, one advantage researchers today have is the growing volume of scientific articles being published each year all over the world. The steady growth of published articles ensures that researchers continue to have access to fresh, original research.

The following chart features countries that achieved the highest growth in publication output of science and engineering articles in 2018:

Source: National Science Foundation

Examples of Primary Research vs Secondary Research

The following table illustrates the differences between primary research and secondary research. The first column lists examples of topics, while the second column provides examples of methods and materials that researchers can use for collecting data on these topics (primary research). On the other hand, the third column lists examples of studies and articles that can be considered as secondary research for the corresponding topics.

TopicExamples of Primary ResearchExamples of Secondary Research
Alcohol abuse on college campusesSurveys and focus groups of college students, observation

Data analysis of survey findings
Wechsler, H., & Wuethrich, B. (2003). Dying to drink: Confronting binge drinking on college campuses. Rodale Books.
Themes of Pablo Neruda’s poemsPablo Neruda’s poems and works

Neruda, P. (2007). 100 love sonnets. Exile Editions.
Eisner, M. (2018). Neruda: The poet's calling. Ecco.

Pellegrini, M. (2019). Pablo Neruda: World literature and human rights. A Companion to World Literature, 1-9.

Feinstein, A. (2005). Pablo Neruda: A passion for life. Bloomsbury Publishing USA.
Relationship between depression and cancer mortalityInterviews of medical professionals (psychiatrists, psychologists, oncologists)

Interviews and focus groups of cancer patients

Data analysis of hospital records
Pinquart, M., & Duberstein, P. R. (2010). Depression and cancer mortality: A meta-analysis. Psychological Medicine, 40(11), 1797-1810.

Spiegel, D., & Giese-Davis, J. (2003). Depression and cancer: Mechanisms and disease progression. Biological Psychiatry, 54(3), 269-282.

Kissane, D. W., Maj, M., & Sartorius, N. (2011). Depression and cancer. John Wiley & Sons.

How to Use Primary and Secondary Research

A researcher can choose to use either or both primary or secondary research methods, depending on their objectives. For instance, primary research is ideal if a researcher seeks to make new discoveries or explore new aspects of their field of study. Primary research can also be used to provide authoritative, credible evidence about a topic (Streefkerk, 2018).

Moreover, primary research can be used to produce data that is not only reliable but also specific and relevant to the researcher’s needs. The customized nature of research instruments, such as surveys and interviews also makes primary research ideal for researchers who need a high level of control over data collection methods.

On the other hand, researchers who want to gain more knowledge about their chosen topic will do well to start with secondary research. According to Foley (2019), secondary research serves as a good starting point for any research process. Through secondary research, researchers can determine and understand how their peers have previously approached the topic. Secondary research also allows researchers to collect data in a shorter period and at a lower cost.

Despite their differences, however, primary and secondary research will both prove to be useful in the research process. Foley suggests that both research methods are most effective when used together. Studying existing literature and published materials (secondary research) helps researchers determine the extent of existing knowledge on the topic. If insufficient data is present, researchers have the option to devote time and effort to do primary research.


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  2. Callaham, M. (2002). Journal prestige, publication bias, and other characteristics associated with citation of published studies in peer-reviewed journals. JAMA, 287(21), 2847.
  3. Driscoll, D. (2010). Introduction to primary research: Observations, surveys, and interviews. In C. Lowe & P. Zemliansky (Eds.), Writing spaces: Readings on writing, vol. 2 (pp. 153-174).
  4. Federal Policy for the Protection of Human Subjects 1991 (US)
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  10. Nyumba, T., Wilson, K., Derrick, C., & Mukherjee, N. (2018). The use of focus group discussion methodology: Insights from two decades of application in conservation. Methods in Ecology and Evolution, 9 (1), 20-32.
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  12. Sharma, B. (2019, July 23). IoT – The buzzword for market researchers. ReadWrite
  13. Simundić A. M. (2013). Bias in research. Biochemia medica, 23(1), 12–15.
  14. Stewart, D. W., & Kamins, M. A. (1993). Secondary research: Information sources and methods (2nd ed.). SAGE.
  15. Wilson, J., & Joye, S. (2019). Research Designs and Variables. In Research Methods and Statistics: An Integrated Approach (pp. 40-72). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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