FAQs: Secondary Research (What It Is and When To Use It)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published July 21, 2021

Whether you're a student or a professional, there are times when you may need to conduct research to investigate a topic or answer a question. The kind of research you conduct can vary by the problem you're working to solve or understand. Learning about the differences between performing primary and secondary research can help you determine what kind of research to use in your work. In this article, we define secondary and primary research, explain the differences between them and discuss when to use secondary research.

Related: What a Researcher's Work Is and How To Become One

What is secondary research?

Secondary research is information and data gathered from an existing source. Some examples of secondary sources include the news, academic articles and reference books. Many researchers start by studying secondary sources as the first step in their research process. Secondary sources help researchers know what information already exists about a topic, which they can use to learn about a subject, solve a problem or propose a theory. Many researchers start by reading secondary sources before designing or conducting their own research studies. These sources can provide a helpful foundation of information that offers insight into a subject for the researcher.

However, those who use secondary materials must make sure the research they read is accurate. They may also need to prepare to work through an extensive volume of information when conducting secondary research. There may be many sources of information about a particular topic, so using specific keywords and subject-related questions may guide your research when looking at secondary sources.

What is primary research?

Primary research is a method in which the researcher directly participates in gathering data. Most often, researchers use this method to answer questions that existing studies haven't answered yet. For example, a scientist may use secondary research to learn as much as they can about a topic. Based on this existing knowledge, they might identify a question related to their subject that other researchers haven't answered yet. Using their expertise on the topic, the scientist might design a study to collect data, interpret the results and share their findings with others. Examples of primary research sources include:

  • Surveys

  • Interviews

  • Questionnaires

  • Focus groups

  • Direct observations

  • Experiments

Related: Types of Research: Definitions and Examples

What are the differences between secondary and primary research?

While primary and secondary research are both ways of gathering information, they have many differences. The differences between these types of research include:

Source of information

The first major difference between these types of research is the source of their information. With primary research, the researcher actively collects the data. They may design specialized materials to conduct their research, such as writing surveys or developing laboratory procedures for an experiment. They also distribute the data collection materials or oversee and record the results of laboratory procedures.

The source of information from secondary research comes from secondary sources. This means the researcher doesn't directly participate in gathering and interpreting data. Instead, they study the findings of other researchers and apply that knowledge to solve problems. Sources of secondary research most often include published content. Researchers can find secondary sources online, through academic databases and in libraries.

Related: Methods of Data Collection (With Data Types and Examples)

Resources required

Primary research often requires more resources to conduct than secondary research. Performing secondary research usually takes less time, money and expertise to conduct. Primary research can take a long time to plan, create the data collection materials, execute the research, record the data and interpret the results. Due to the number of steps required to do primary research, it can also be more expensive than secondary research. Additionally, researchers conducting formal primary studies may need extensive training depending on their industry. They may have expert industry knowledge in addition to knowledge of research methods that ensure the validity of their findings.

Ownership of data

These types of research also differ in the level of ownership the researcher has over their findings. A primary researcher has full ownership of their data. Since they designed the research procedures and materials, conducted the study and interpreted and shared their findings, they hold complete responsibility for their work. However, a researcher using secondary sources has no ownership over the source of the data. The data belongs to the researcher who gathered it, and those who use secondary research may need to reference the original study or author to protect their intellectual property.

When is secondary research necessary?

Secondary research is necessary when you need to learn about a topic in a quick, cost-effective way. For example, if you want to learn about how to use a type of computer software, you might conduct secondary research by reading a technical manual or following a tutorial. This secondary research allows you to use information gathered by others to learn a particular skill or answer a specific question like how to use the software.

Although you could also take a primary research approach to learn the software, a secondary research method is likely quicker and easier. To learn the software through a primary research method, you might test different aspects of the application and learn how to use them through practice. It may take more time to learn how to use the application on your own, but you may gain more primary experience by gathering your own data about how the software works.

Related: Primary vs. Secondary Data in Market Research: Definitions and Differences

Who uses secondary research?

Almost everyone uses secondary research to learn about new subjects, but researchers working for businesses or educational institutions may take a more formal and structured approach to using secondary research. For example, a research scientist may spend a lot of time reading academic articles on a topic in their field. They use this secondary information to learn about what other researchers in their field are studying and the content of their results.

Often, scientists use secondary research to help them plan their own primary research studies. They might look to secondary sources to provide background information on the topic they wish to study, and they might review the research methods used in previous studies to determine the best strategy for conducting their own.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of secondary research?

Here are some of the strengths and weaknesses of this kind of research:

Advantages

Secondary research has many advantages. These include:

  • Convenience: Secondary research makes use of readily available information. The researcher can draw information from multiple existing sources to compile a large amount of data with comparatively less effort than conducting a primary study.

  • Cost-effectiveness: Since secondary data comes from existing materials, it takes less time and money to collect. Researchers don't need to spend time designing or distributing materials to collect data since it's already available.

  • Context: Many secondary research studies reference other studies to provide background and support for their methods and conclusions. This can help researchers understand how individual studies connect within a larger scope of research on a topic, providing context and guidance within a subject.

Disadvantages

Secondary research can also have limitations. Some of the disadvantages of secondary research include:

  • Credibility: Since outside researchers collect the data for secondary research, you have less control over the study's quality. Those using secondary research may need to spend more time making sure the data provided by their sources is accurate.

  • Applicability: Depending on your research subject, there may not be secondary sources that directly apply to your problem or question. Secondary sources may have more limited applications to your specific area of interest, unlike primary sources, which can focus more narrowly on a particular research question.

  • Scope: Sometimes, you may find that there are too many secondary sources on your topic. It can take time to read through all the information on a topic, so those conducting secondary research may take more time to narrow their search to find the most relevant content for their area of interest.

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