How to perform desk research

Sometimes you can conduct research from the comfort of your own desk, without actually going out into the “field.” But what exactly is “desk research”?

What’s desk research?

Some research questions can be answered without collecting data using qualitative or quantitative research methods. You can instead utilize existing information and data that has already been collected by others (i.e., secondary data).

Desk research may also be referred to as a literature review, but it is actually not quite the same. Literature research is focused on acquiring theoretical knowledge about a concept or topic, whereas desk research is used to gather facts and existing research data that help to answer your research question.

An example of desk research in practice

Case

The owner of a sports equipment store senses that the store’s customer base and sales are both decreasing.

Desk research can be used to determine if this is indeed true, as well as to identify what may be causing the lower turnover (e.g., seasonality).

Possible data sources

The effect of seasonality can be explored by comparing this year’s invoices with invoices from previous years.

Were sales always down at this time of the year, or is the phenomenon new to the current year?

Comparing the store’s sales data with data available for online shops in the same sector will also reveal if the sales decline is occurring nationwide or only being experienced by the business being investigated.

The role of desk research in your dissertation

The data you collect using desk research will usually serve as the basis for your “results” section, which is where you analyze your findings. The ultimate aim is to lay the groundwork for answering your research question in the conclusion section.

In addition, desk research may also help you to prepare for field research and complement your findings.

An example of desk research that supports field research

Case

The owner of a sports equipment store senses that the store’s customer base and sales are both decreasing.

Your desk research has revealed that online sports equipment shops in the Netherlands all had to deal with declining customer numbers and conversions last year. But what was the cause?

Preparing for your field research

On the basis of your desk research, you decide to undertake qualitative research in the form of interviews with customers to gain insight into the reasons for the decline

You learn through your interviews with customers who buy from online sports equipment shops that these individuals had a lot less money to spend in the previous year.

Complementing your field research

Statistical data from the CBS may confirm and strengthen your interview findings.

You can thus return to desk research to support your field research.

How do you conduct desk research?

It’s best to conduct desk research in a structured manner, as a great deal of information is available.

  1. Select some good keywords/search terms. Focus on terms from your problem statement, research question and theoretical framework (if applicable). Also, try using combinations of keywords and translations (if you are researching in multiple languages).
  2. Find several relevant sources that may contain into useful information/data.
  3. Select the information that best suits your research problem or question. A disadvantage of desk research is that the information you find will often not be quite complete or not precisely match your problem. After all, the data has been collected for another purpose. It is, therefore, important that you are very critical and only use data that is both relevant and recent. It’s also vital to consider the reliability of a source. As much as possible, try to rely on data from recognized research institutes or entities.
  4. Process the information you have gathered to answer your research question. Various methods exist for doing this. For example, if you’ve found a lot of statistical data, you may be able to analyze it using the SPSS program (just as you would if you collected survey data through field research). Sometimes you can also just compare simple calculations, as in the invoice example above. However, it’s also possible to analyze the data using the theories and models that you’ve included in your theoretical framework.

Always take care to properly acknowledge your sources. Indicating where you obtained the data will ensure that you do not commit plagiarism.

Examples of information sources

Numerous sources are available for conducting desk research. The following list includes some examples to help you get started.

  • National statistical offices. Every country has its own national statistics office. For example, the website of the CBS (the Dutch National Statistics Office) contains a vast array of statistics concerning the Netherlands that can be easily searched to find data relevant to a particular topic. For example, if you are investigating the aging of the Dutch population, searching for “aging” reveals that the aging and life expectancy rates are both increasing in the Netherlands whereas country’s population growth is decreasing.
  • LexisNexis: A database for educational institutions that contains articles from reliable news sources. It may be a helpful tool for exploring, say, when a particular topic first appeared in the news or how that topic has developed. For example, if you are looking into how the media discusses crises, you could determine when the word “crisis” first appeared.
  • Google Scholar: A search engine for scientific literature.
  • Business Source Premier: A research databank for management and marketing publications, with a focus primarily on economic research fields. In addition to journals, you will also find reports related to key international companies, sectors, markets, and countries.
  • Knovel: A source for reliable reports and databases from leading technical publishers and professional organizations that focus on engineering.
  • Twitter: Twitter can be used to investigate issues such as how often a particular topic is discussed. For example, you may want to determine the average number of travelers per day who complain about the train schedule of the Dutch rail service NS. While not every traveler submits an official complaint, many complain via Twitter. Searching Twitter for “NS” or “trains” can, therefore, reveal relevant information.
  • Journals (e.g., through JSTOR);
  • Magazines;
  • Company information (such as annual reports, sales reports, and invoices);
  • Chamber of commerce reports and data;
  • Trend and industry reports;
  • Municipal or state/provincial information;
  • Databases;
  • Archives;
  • Photographs;
  • Diaries or personal journals; and
  • Newspapers or books from the period that you are researching.
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Kirsten Dingemanse

Kirsten is a Scribbr editor. She has a lot of experience with writing theses and conducting research and would like to share her knowledge with students to help them with their studies.

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