What is the difference between Primary and Secondary Research?

Updated: May 6

Many important decisions are based on evidence uncovered through research. Such decisions can include courses of action, administrative policies, and patient treatments, to name a few. The evidence or data gathered through research provides decision makers with the information that they need in order to make the best decision possible for their organization.[1] This data or evidence usually comes in one of two forms of research: Primary or Secondary.

Primary research refers to research that is conducted by the researcher and taken straight from the original source(s). In this type of research, the researcher participates directly in the data gathering process. This type of research is normally based on a specific need and therefore can be customized. It is also typically time-consuming, and can be expensive. Examples of primary research are: Surveys, interviews, focus groups, clinical trials, case studies, legal documents, and government documents to name a few. Primary research is more hands-on than secondary research. For example, a survey or clinical trial would require a sample population, sampling of participants, hypothesis, measurements, methodological design and procedures, collection of raw data, results, reporting mechanisms, and some form of statistical analysis – whether quantitative or qualitative, or both.[2]

Secondary research refers to gathering and aggregating research that has already been conducted and published by others. This form of information can be obtained from numerous types of sources. Therefore, the researcher synthesizes existing research to find answers or present evidence. Secondary research is often less time-consuming and therefore less expensive since the data already exists in some form; it most likely just needs to be found, analyzed, synthesized, and presented. Therefore, secondary research accesses primary research. Examples of secondary research are: articles published by academic peer-reviewed journals, reports or studies published by government agencies and educational institutions, dictionaries, encyclopedias, and text books. Secondary research therefore focuses on the synthesis of the information rather than the collection of the data. In this way, it is more descriptive, informative, evaluative, and connective.

There also exists another form of research which is described as Gray Literature. Gray Literature falls between primary research and secondary research. It is defined as research that is unpublished. Examples include White Papers, policy statements, conference proceedings, dissertations, and fact sheets. In many cases, these types of sources can provide valid information because they are often produced by subject matter experts, but just have not been peer-reviewed or published in a reference source.

Whether utilizing primary or secondary research, they are both reliable sources of information that are key in affecting decision making. Both forms of research are examined in order to maintain a certain amount of integrity and reflect accuracy.[3] Primary and secondary research evaluate available evidence to allow for an interpretation of data that can be used to better inform stakeholders and enable them to make evidence-based organizational decisions.[4] Gray Literature can also be a source of reliable information in certain circumstances. It should not automatically be discarded just because it has not been peer-reviewed or published. All three forms of research can be used by policy makers, administrators, health care providers, government agencies, and advocacy groups to make informed decisions.

[1]Suri, H. (2011). Purposeful sampling in qualitative research synthesis. Qualitative Research Journal, 11(2), 63-75. [2]Norris, J. M., Plonsky, L., Ross, S. J., & Schoonen, R. (2015). Guidelines for reporting quantitative methods and results in primary research. Language Learning, 65(2), 470-476. [3]Rossner, M., Van Epps, H., & Hill, E. (2008). Show me the data. Journal of General Physiology, 131(1), 3-4. [4]Damen, J. A., & Hooft, L. (2019). The increasing need for systematic reviews of prognosis studies: Strategies to facilitate review production and improve quality of primary research. Diagnostic and Prognostic Research, 3(2), 1-4.