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Primary & secondary research differences

Updated April 17, 2017

Primary and secondary research methods are used when conducting research, particularly in the social sciences (such as history) or natural sciences. Being able to distinguish primary research from secondary research is essential for writing term papers, essays and reports and discerning what kind of research is required for a particular subject -- historians will normally use primary research methods rather than relying solely on secondary research.

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Primary Research

Primary research, or research using primary sources, is the use of first-hand data and/or resources. For example, conducting an interview for a social studies project would be using a primary research method, as the researcher is collecting the data himself. Primary sources are also examples of primary research; for example, when writing an essay on the Roman Empire, a diary or painting from that era is a primary source (also called "the original source" or "original evidence") as it has not been altered and is the closest genuine source of information to the topic.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Primary Research

Primary research is the closest form of information to the topic or idea being studied. Information is not altered by other scholars and is a genuine account which can be easily interpreted by the researcher. Genuine, unaltered information is also more reliable and accurate, particularly for history subjects. However, primary research takes longer to conduct as the researcher must perform the research herself and primary sources (i.e., original text or genuine artefacts) are much harder to find compared to secondary resources.

Secondary Research

Secondary research involves comments written about a primary source, including interpretations, discussions or other studies by other researchers. The researcher does not have access to the primary source used in secondary research and relies solely on information interpreted or analysed by another person. For example, if an interview is being conducted and the researcher records the interviewees comments, the researcher is using primary research. However, if someone else tells the researcher what the interviewee has said, secondary research is being used. Examples of secondary research or secondary sources include articles, scholarly journals, essays or academic books.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Secondary Research

Secondary research allows the researcher to use a variety of opinions and resources, rather than using one primary source in primary research methods. Researchers have access to various interpretations, opinions and comments regarding a primary source, allowing a more detailed analysis to be performed by cross-referencing reliable secondary sources. However, secondary research does not allow the research to examine the primary source first-hand; the researcher is exposed to another person's analysis and opinions, which may not be as close to the "truth" as a primary source would be.

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About the Author

Victoria Gorski has been a freelance copywriter since 2005, producing articles for small businesses, newspapers and magazines, as well as creating marketing material. She also publishes material for literacy communities and regional newspapers, such as the "MEN" and "Bolton News." Gorski is pursuing a Master of Arts in creative writing and a postgraduate certificate in education.

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