A Simple Guide to Primary Research

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05/11/19 Reference this

This article provides a simple, easy to follow, guide to conducting primary research in your academic work, regardless of the level of study that you are currently engaged in. To begin with then, if you want to know what primary research is, and what it entails, primary research can most easily be understood when juxtaposed against secondary research, which is a much easier concept to understand and grasp.  Secondary research is all about using data that has already been collected by other researchers, and so contrary to this, primary research involves collecting your own data, and analysing it –which is obviously much more difficult and labour intensive than conducting secondary research.

For someone conducting secondary research, this could largely be done in a library or at home with a computer, as all that is required for this kind of research is access to already compiled datasets or published studies, which can then be further analysed and incorporated into a new study. Hence, in this kind of research, there is a secondary analysis of a dataset, as the name suggests. However, for those doing primary research, this will involve going out into the world (or using digital technologies to connect with people in the virtual realm), and collecting new data from participants who agree to take part in the study. There are, of course, various nuances in respect of both primary and secondary research, and ways to go about it, but these are the basic fundamental principles you must be aware of, before we discuss primary research in a little more detail.

Primary research involves collecting your own data and analysing it in a systematic way


What Primary Research Is

  • The collection of previously uncollected data
  • Carrying out interviews, questionnaires, or observations
  • A paper that includes a ‘methodology’ section
  • The creation of a new piece of research, rather than the review of previously conducted studies or the analysis of previously collected data
  • A study that does not rely on data collected by others
  • A study that needs to make ethical considerations due to the inclusion of participants
  • A study that is highly vulnerable to researcher bias

What Primary Research Is Not

  • The analysis of other researchers’ data
  • A literature review of existing material
  • A meta-analysis of various studies
  • The analysis of government statistics or reports
  • The analysis of public opinion poll data (such as MORI, for example)
  • A systematic review of peer-reviewed journal articles
  • Research conducted using an existing database

Carrying Out Primary Research: Choosing the Research Instrument

If you have made the decision to conduct primary research, and do not want to take the arguably easier route of analysing other researchers’ data (which you might need to do if you are limited with time and resources), you then need to make a number of choices. The first choice, and perhaps the most important, is probably going to be that of what kind of data you will collect, and this could come in various forms by using a variety of research instruments. This is by no means a random process though, and will largely depend upon your field of study, and what you intend to measure. Some examples of research approaches for primary research include: (1) observations, (2) interviews, and (3) questionnaires; and each of these approaches have their own particular pros and cons.

So, in observational research, a researcher or researchers observe on-going behaviour, and takes notes either during the observations, or afterwards in a more reflexive fashion. Moreover, this can involve either participant observation (which involves the researcher participating in a particular activity) or non-participant observation (which involves the researcher observing an activity, but not taking part in it). This then, is something that you can look into further—as this is a subject in itself—but for now, let’s keep things simple: a researcher that conducts first-hand observations on research subjects is deemed to be conducting primary research.

Another research instrument that can also be used in primary research, is that of interviews, which can be structured, unstructured, or semi-structured—meaning that the interviews can be completely planned with regard to the questions being asked, can be completely unplanned and done in an improvised fashion, or can be a mix of both, with some questions set in stone, and others being created on the spot as follow up questions depending upon the answers the participants give. Furthermore, such interviews could be done over the phone or face-to-face, and such decisions regarding the format will largely depend upon the sample being studied, and issues pertaining to accessibility. Again, the intricacies of interviews as a research instrument can be discussed at length, but again, let’s simplify this, and note that: a researcher that conducts interviews with research subjects is also deemed to be conducting primary research.

In addition, one of the most popular of research instruments for those conducting primary research is that of the questionnaire, which is similar in some ways to an interview, except that it is written down on paper for the respondent to answer. There are a number of different types of question on such a questionnaire, and these can include closed questions and open questions. For example, a closed question might be one that has multiple choices in its answers, or it could be a ranking scale, which asks the respondent to mark the strength of their opinion towards something. However, an open question allows the respondent to create their own answer instead of choosing from a predetermined choice, making such answers more qualitative than quantitative in nature. Once again, if you want to know more about the creation of questionnaires, and how to code them, then you will need to study this as a subject in its own right. The bottom line though is that: a researcher that carries out questionnaires with research participants is also deemed to be conducting primary research.

There are also other approaches to primary research, such as focus groups (which involves a guided discussion amongst a group of individuals) or ethnographic research (which involves observations being made of participants in their real life environment), but what is common to all primary research, which makes it primary research as opposed to secondary research, is that the researcher is collecting data themselves, with the intention of analysing this data later as one might also do in a secondary study. So, to reiterate, there are a number of different ways for researchers to collect data, with there being a variety of research instruments to choose from, each with their own strengths and weaknesses; and this choice very much depends upon what is being studied, and what phenomenon is being measured – along with the available time and resources for conducting the study. However, what puts a research project in the category of primary research, above all else, is whether the researcher collects the data for the study themselves. Thus, primary research involves collecting your own data and analysing it in a systematic way.

What Primary Research Is

To clarify, primary research can be broken down into what it is, and what it isn’t. So, we have already established that primary research involves the collection of previously uncollected data, and that it will involve using a particular research instrument to collect this data, such as interviews, questionnaires, or observations. However, there are a number of other markers that also help distinguish primary research from its secondary research counterpart. For example, a primary research paper almost always has a ‘methodology’ section, which details how the data for the study was collected, and so this is an immediate tip off if you are scanning a research paper, and want to know what kind of study it is. Thus, a primary research study will essentially be the creation of a new piece of research, rather than it being a review of previously conducted studies, or the analysis of previously collected data, and so this will inevitably demand a discussion of the methodology being employed.

Moreover, due to the inclusion of participants, a primary research study will also typically need to make ethical considerations, and there is likely a discussion of such considerations in the paper – although the extent of this might vary depending upon the nature of the study (for example, research that directly involves children, or those with diminished capacity, will inevitably have more ethical considerations to make). In addition, a primary research study is also likely to be extremely vulnerable to researcher bias, as the researcher will be making choices about the questions to be asked, the hypothesis to be tested, and the way of approaching the research question; and if they already have a preconceived idea about the subject under investigation, then such choices could conceivably shape the outcome of the research. However, in order to create a study that does not rely on data collected by others, it is necessary to make ethical considerations and consider any bias in the research, in order for it to be more robust, valid, and reliable.

Primary research typically has a methodology section detailing the instrument used for collecting data, and discusses any ethical considerations or possible researcher bias


What Primary Research Isn’t

If a piece of research simply analyses other researchers’ data or work, and does not add to this with an original piece of research in its own right, then this cannot be considered to be primary research. Typically, this often consists of a review of existing literature, and then a discussion of the cumulative findings. Furthermore, if a study uses data from other researchers’ work, and then combines this data in a meta-analysis of various studies, then this too cannot be considered as being primary research, as no raw data is being produced. In addition, if a study mainly draws upon government statistics or data produced through an established survey or opinion poll, then this too is easy to mark out as not being a primary research study, as is the case for any research that uses any kind of existing database as a source for the key part of the study. As such, if you were to review a number of peer-reviewed journal articles, for example, and to cite statistics contained within these papers, and draw conclusions from this, then this would not be considered to be a primary research study. There are, of course, a number of benefits of doing this, and not conducting primary research – which might include having limited time and resources, along with limited experience as a researcher, or limited access to the population under study. Moreover, you might also be able to gain access to a much larger and robust sample by doing secondary research; and so there is no right or wrong answer when it comes to deciding whether or not to conduct primary research, as this very much depends upon the aims and objectives of your study.

Primary research is not a study that draws upon data produced by other researchers – this is ‘secondary research’


Final Thoughts…

To close with then, it is easiest to understand what primary research is by first understanding what it is not – and what it is not is a study that relies upon data produced by other researchers. Thus, what you need to remember is that primary research is a study that involves the collection and analysis of new data. Now, the collection and analysis of data is a field in its own right, and you will need to study about different research instruments, coding, validity and reliability, samples, qualitative and quantitative research, and so on, if you are to create your own primary research project. However, if you are new to conducting research, and you are still at the stage of learning the basics and trying to remember terms such as primary and secondary research, then this article should serve as a good reminder, in simple, clear terms, of what primary research is.

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