Secondary Research: Essence, Types, And Approaches


When you are working on in-depth research on some topics, it is crucial to apply proper approaches. It often determines the overall success of your work. Whether you use primary or secondary research, you have to be extra careful about the reliability.

But wait a moment. What are those primary and secondary things, and how do they differ? This question often puzzles the newcomers. Therefore, we’ve decided to examine it all-around.

Why Is It Helpful to Refer to the Secondary Research?

The difference between primary and secondary researches is in the person doing them.

  • “primary” relates to the investigations you do yourself. You should collect first-hand data in real-time. Also, you define the sources, develop the methods, and run the research course yourself;
  • “secondary” relates to the data already gathered and analyzed by other people. It is all the digging in books, stats data, interviews, and the rest of the sources. All you did for any school essay was the secondary research.

Suppose you are planning a thesis to defend for the degree. In that case, you won’t avoid doing both primary and secondary types of research. On the other hand, you may get the lion’s share of all materials by the secondary research only. It is the prevailing means for several reasons:

  • lower price. The primary research is often quite expensive. It demands travels, paying other people for service, and so on. For the secondary research, you only need a library, traditional or digital. It does not mean that secondary research is free of charge, unfortunately. Access to many data may be paid. Still, it is cheaper than the primary analysis;
  • time-saving. With the primary research, there are always substantial preparations. You have to spend a lot of time finding the target groups, negotiating with participants, and interviewing people directly. With the secondary research, it has already been done. There are the answers you need. All the masses of the data for your analysis are already present;
  • accessibility. It is possible to refer to digital documents. Thus, secondary research becomes a question of several hours. All you need is an Internet connection and a device to surf the Web. Still, if some data isn’t available in digital form, you can request it in the library. Moreover, you can even communicate with the original researchers. There is an opportunity to clarify any gaps or confirm or disprove theories, directly talking to those scientists!
  • the scope of the data. The more data you use for your analysis, the more precise patterns you can determine there. Therefore, your conclusions are more reliable. Collecting such data volumes personally is complicated. It will always take too long and demand too many resources. Secondary research deals with the available works of many researchers to dig in deep;
  • professionalism. You should use the original data for your work. Collecting them is the job of established researchers and institutions. These people had excellent experiences, and their employers could provide them with the most robust tools. When you do your research, you risk missing some important things. It is just because you lack that experience and professionalism.

As you see, secondary research is often the default approach for a reason. Its advantages are obvious. Even the most famous scientists start their original investigations with secondary studies. It is an integral part of any scientific process.

It does not mean, however, that this research approach is ideal. There are pitfalls too, and you should consider them. 

The Hidden Issues of the Secondary Research

With all the impressive advantages of secondary research, it is not a universal solution. It can’t guarantee that you’ll get all the data you need and in the appropriate format. You need to keep it on your mind when using this approach. Pay attention to the following potential obstacles:

  • the irrelevance of the data. They might not match your purposes. The reason is simple: the original researcher had a different goal to reach. You may still use those results if there is a mass of the “raw” data for your interpretation. At the same time, you might have to reject some sources because of irrelevant data;
  • the wrong format. It often applies to the specific features of the participants or the data criteria. You need to examine it thoroughly to make sure that the results can be applicable in your case. E.g., your research relates to a particular area, but the secondary research is for another region;
  • unreliability of the data. Being collected by professionals is not quality insurance. For instance, new factors may appear and disprove those results. Or, the methods the original researchers used might lack some significant points. In such a way, the products contain mistakes.

All the aspects mentioned above may take place. It does not make the information useless at all, but the use would be indirect. It might help you to research the background of the problem. Or, it leads you to an impressive research question. In any case, remember that the data retrieved from the secondary research can be problematic. Be very careful and make sure to go through the sources properly before applying it. 

The Secondary Research Sources

We’ve mentioned that you’d use trustworthy sources for those researches. When you conduct your secondary research, you may refer to internal and external sources.

  • internal sources. Here, you get the information gathered by some organization or institution. This information relates directly to this organization and its work, like internal stats, financial, marketing, logistic, transport, and other data. Such sources are excellent if the research question relates to this particular organization. These data are also suitable if you deal with a broader field, where this organization can be a good example;
  • external sources. Here, you deal with the information related to this organization but collected by a third-party. For instance, those are government services, private stats agencies. The great advantage of such data is their volume and the reliability level. You can find the information about any issue that interests you. Besides, these data come by default from the most established specialists.

Whether you use internal or external sources, you need to check them for relevance first. For instance, you may examine some issues chronologically. Then, make sure that you have materials for each essential chronological point. 

One more significant factor is to get the right type of data from those sources.

Quantitative and Qualitative Secondary Data Types

The data you obtain via the secondary research may be of two types: quantitative and qualitative. Both are essential in a decent scientific job. 

  • the quantitative type gives you the masses of numerical data. Those are the stats results mostly, and they are excellent support for your ideas. The main advantage is that they provide enough material for analysis to make grounded statements;
  • the qualitative type is non-numerical. It deals with specific features, like age, gender, nationality, citizenship, place of origin. These data are the background of your research. First, you define which qualities interest you. Then, you base the questions that you need answers for on those qualities. 

The typical model of your research is combining the qualitative data with the quantitative data. This way, you relate the two data types to each other and get the patterns.

Processing the Secondary Research Results

When you are gathering the data during the research, you process them at once. The three methods of work are: 

  • processing the secondary research results from one source. Apply this method if the data you retrieve cover all the necessities of your work;
  • combining secondary research results from several sources. This method is suitable when you compare different previous studies;
  • combining the secondary and primary research data. Mainly, it is practical testing of some statements determined from the secondary research. You may also use other scientists’ data and conclusions to support your findings from the primary analysis.

Thus, we’ve clarified the basics of secondary research. Let’s now review the entire process that you’ll perform to compose your paper.

Conducting the Secondary Research Process on Practice

Any research process consists of several stages. As for the secondary research, it obeys the general rules, but it also has some specificities. Below we examine the research process as a sequence of four necessary stages.

Start With a Research Question

It depends on the type of paper you work on if you already have a research question or not. Undergraduate theses mostly involve predefined research questions. In the case of a graduate dissertation, you have to determine it yourself. Though it relates to many other papers – even college essays demand developing the research questions.

Any scientific investigation starts with understanding what you want to find out. Thus, the following steps are necessary: 

  • specify the field of your examination and the general problem;
  • examine the leading works on that problem. Your goal is to analyze those pieces and define any gap in the present knowledge. In other cases, you might elaborate on some aspect that needs additional proof or disproof;
  • narrow the field and formulate the particular aspect of the problem you want to clarify. It is your research question. 

Define Which Data You Need

It depends on your work’s nature if you require both the primary and secondary studies’ results. Should their secondary data be enough, you still need to consider the sources.

  • review the leading scientific works in your field. Pay special attention to the other sources mentioned there. It is a way to learn about further investigations, researchers’ names, and where to get the information;
  • check if you can use those data. For instance, you get the information from a published paper that is available for public use. Then, you only need to mark it in the bibliography section and format all references properly. It will be different if you deal with the internal data of some organizations. Here, you need to ensure the permission for referring to them.

Consider and Evaluate the Sources

It is crucial to base your research on trustworthy information. Whether it is primary or secondary type, you need to evaluate the sources of the data. For the secondary research data sources, note the following aspects:

  • the goal of the original research. It is necessary to understand if you can relate those data to your study. Also, it helps to estimate if the explorers could get the proper results;
  • the data collectors. Check of that was a governmental agency or some reputable private service. It could even be an initiative of some volunteers. These conditions impact the reliability of the results significantly;
  • the time that the research took place. You always need to use the most up-to-date data only. If the data were gathered several years ago, check if there were later investigations. It is necessary to define at once if the conclusions from the previous study are still valid;
  • the measures. Check which information the examiners gathered: what their sources were if the examiners got quantitative data, and how much. These details should be present in the documents of the original research;
  • the methods. You need to be sure that the techniques were scientific and trustworthy to rely on the results brought by them. Consider the conditions of the research, how representative were the participants, and so on.

When you’ve defined the reliable sources for you and retrieved the necessary information, you can analyze it.

Analyze the Results of the Research.

First of all, you determine the qualitative aspects. This way, you clarify the field of your research and its most essential factors. Then, apply the quantitative data to those criteria. You will need to use the statistical analysis methods. The more data you can refer to, the more reliable your results can be.

The best way is to use Excel sheets. There, you can enter the data of your interest and process them. Excel is a powerful analytical tool, and it can calculate the necessary dependencies for you easier. On the other hand, you can use any devices that are suitable for you.


The secondary research is an efficient approach that is excellent for all independent works. The graduate theses often demand your primary investigations. Still, you can’t do it properly without referring to the authoritative voices of the past investigators. We hope that this article helped clarify all the basics of secondary research, and its principles are now clear.

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