The aim of research is to discover and/or interpret behaviour in an attempt to “explain, predict, and control events” (Ary, Jacobs, and Sorensen, 2010, p.38). Research generates many valuable outcomes: it helps us to produce new knowledge; enables us to predict whether our actions are likely to result in successful outcomes; leads to the development of future thought leaders; helps protect researchers from inappropriate measurement requirements driven by political pressure; and links scholar communities (Gravey, 2005). In an era dubbed by many pundits as “post-truth”, this last outcome may be the most valuable of all, allowing the public to have an avenue for seeking evidence, rather than continually questioning whether they are being swept up in interest-driven claims and research.
Primary and Secondary Research
Primary research involves the collection of new information or data, typically in an attempt to answer a new research question. Common methods include questionnaires/surveys, focus groups, interviews, observation, and experiments. As primary research requires the researcher to actively collect information or data, it is sometimes referred to as “field research”. By contrast, secondary research involves considering the findings of completed research (primary and/or secondary) and summarizing or synthesizing it. In some cases, this aggregate view can result in new insight. Common secondary sources include journal articles, competitor information, and scientific research, though information from any credible source can be included. As secondary research does not require the researcher to collect new information, it is sometimes referred to as “desk research”. Whether a primary or secondary approach is most appropriate for your research is best decided after an analysis of the benefits and drawbacks of each.
There are several benefits and drawbacks to both primary and secondary research from the researcher’s perspective. In the case of primary research, there are two key benefits: the research can be tailored to the specific research question; and quality is entirely controlled by the researcher, from design through construction. The primary research process is a time consuming one that is often costly to undertake, which are the two key drawbacks of this approach. By contrast, secondary research has the benefits of typically being inexpensive and relatively quick. However, secondary research has the disadvantage of requiring that the researcher analyze and integrate information/data that was not collected for reasons related to the current research question or objectives, which can be challenging. To complicate matters, the secondary sources that more closely align with the research question(s) can be old and therefore less credible. Ultimately, it is the nature of your research problem or question that dictates the appropriate research approach.
Selection of Primary or Secondary Research
Researchers need to consider when it is appropriate to invest time and money in primary research versus simply being a consumer of secondary research. Many types of research projects benefit from primary research, including cases where: the research question(s) is novel and there is little to no existing research on the topic (i.e. customized findings are required); the research is focused on a select individual or group of individuals (Purdue, 2017); or the research is intended to confirm or refute previous research findings (e.g. attempts to generalize research findings) (Purdue, 2017). By contrast, secondary research is appropriate in cases where: the research question(s) at hand can be adequately addressed with existing research; existing research can answer your research question while a single study could not; or there are cost, resource, or time constraints that preclude the undertaking of primary research.
Research is a critical activity which helps us produce new knowledge; predict outcomes; develop thought leaders; protect against political pressure; and combat interest-driven claims and research (Gravey, 2005). The latter being arguably the most important feature of all, as we try to operate effectively in a “post-fact” era. Given the importance of research, it is critical to continue to seek out new information to add to our body of knowledge (primary research), while also adding to our understanding of existing research through summary and synthesis (secondary research).
Ari, Donald, Lucy Cheser Jacobs, and Chris Sorensen. (2010). Introduction to Research in Education. Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 8th ed.
Garvey, Dan. (2005). The Importance of Research and Evaluation. Journal of Experiential Education, 28, 3, 290-293.
Purdue. (2017). What is Primary Research and How do I get Started? Retrieved July 27, 2017. https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/owlprint/559/