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 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).
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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:
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 Research||Secondary Research|
|Data is collected by the researcher themselves||Data is collected by other researchers|
|Based on raw data||Based on data that has been previously analyzed|
|High level of involvement from the researcher||Low 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-consuming||Fast, low-cost|
Researchers have plenty of options to explore when it comes to doing secondary research. The following sources can assist researchers in doing secondary research:
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
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:
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.
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
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.
|Topic||Examples of Primary Research||Examples of Secondary Research|
|Alcohol abuse on college campuses||Surveys 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 poems||Pablo 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. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118635193.ctwl0288
Feinstein, A. (2005). Pablo Neruda: A passion for life. Bloomsbury Publishing USA.
|Relationship between depression and cancer mortality||Interviews 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. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0033291709992285
Spiegel, D., & Giese-Davis, J. (2003). Depression and cancer: Mechanisms and disease progression. Biological Psychiatry, 54(3), 269-282. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0006-3223(03)00566-3
Kissane, D. W., Maj, M., & Sartorius, N. (2011). Depression and cancer. John Wiley & Sons.
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.