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Drawing on primary and secondary research

In this article, find out what are the differences between primary sources and secondary information and why you may want to use them in your research
© University of Southampton

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In reality, the distinction between primary and secondary research is often blurred. Nonetheless, it is sometimes helpful to distinguish between the two – particularly when planning your research.
  • Primary research involves drawing conclusions directly from results, data or evidence themselves.
  • Secondary research involves drawing conclusions based upon other researchers’ findings, conclusions or interpretations (including interpretations of primary data).

Primary research

Primary research is typically focused on original evidence – i.e. raw information which has not been processed or interpreted by other researchers. Such research may include:
Primary sources can be used as direct evidence for (or against) a theory or hypothesis which you are investigating. It may also be used to defend assumptions which will underpin your research. Most research will draw upon a range of primary sources, and even in experimental research it is likely that other primary (and secondary) sources will be needed to justify your methods and questions.
Primary research is usually written up in journal articles, conference papers, and theses. These formats tend to allow for faster and more specific publications. Whilst academic books may also be based around primary data, this is less common (though with important exceptions – particularly for older works). Edited collections of primary research may also be published – focused around a particular theme.

Secondary research

Secondary research is typically focused on drawing conclusions based upon existing research, but possibly from a new theoretical, or methodological perspective. Such research may include:
  • Analysing, critiquing or reinterpreting existing research
  • Reviewing or analysing (meta-analysis) multiple pieces of existing research to draw conclusions
  • Constructing theories and conceptual frameworks based upon existing research
  • Mixing or synthesising existing research in order to draw new conclusions
  • Summarising existing research to clarify, educate or introduce.
Secondary sources can also be used as direct evidence for (or against) a theory or hypothesis which you are investigating (though always check the primary sources that these secondary accounts rely upon). Secondary sources are also particularly useful for establishing the context of your research, the theories, concepts and definitions you will use.
Secondary research may also be written up in journal articles, conference papers, and theses. It is also commonly found in academic books, and edited volumes, in which subjects and theories can be explored in greater depth.

Choosing your sources

There is no hierarchy between primary and secondary sources – at least in terms of quality. Rather, the important questions to ask yourself are:

What is the quality of the sources I am looking at?

A strong piece of secondary analysis is more reliable than a weak piece of primary research.

What kinds of sources do I need to pursue my particular questions?

The ‘right sources’ depend entirely on what you are studying, and the methods you plan to use. Focus on the sources you need, rather than those that seem commonplace.

It is likely I will use both primary and secondary sources, but how should I cater for this in my structure?

Think firstly about whether you begin with a literature review, or whether to introduce your sources as you proceed.
Which sources are needed to base the project on, and establish the question – and which are needed later to do the analysis?

What in my research needs to be original, and what doesn’t?

Something about your research should be original (or else what is its purpose?). But ‘original research’ can mean lots of things:
  • Looking at old data with a new method is original research
  • Drawing a new conclusion from secondary sources is original research
  • Applying an existing theory to a new case study is original research.
© University of Southampton
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