What is Secondary Research? | Definition, Types, & Examples

Secondary research is a research method that uses data that was collected by someone else. In other words, whenever you conduct research using data that already exists, you are conducting secondary research. On the other hand, any type of research that you undertake yourself is called primary research.

Example: Secondary research
You are interested in how the number and quality of vegan options offered at your campus dining hall have changed over time. You have a friend who graduated a few years ago who was also interested in this topic. You borrow her survey results and use them to conduct statistical analysis.

Secondary research can be qualitative or quantitative in nature. It often uses data gathered from published peer-reviewed papers, meta-analyses, or government or private sector databases and datasets.

Tip: Primary vs. secondary sources
It can be easy to get confused about the difference between primary and secondary sources in your research. The key is to remember that primary sources provide firsthand information and evidence, while secondary sources provide secondhand information and commentary from previous works.

When to use secondary research

Secondary research is a very common research method, used in lieu of collecting your own primary data. It is often used in research designs or as a way to start your research process if you plan to conduct primary research later on.

Since it is often inexpensive or free to access, secondary research is a low-stakes way to determine if further primary research is needed, as gaps in secondary research are a strong indication that primary research is necessary. For this reason, while secondary research can theoretically be exploratory or explanatory in nature, it is usually explanatory: aiming to explain the causes and consequences of a well-defined problem.

Types of secondary research

Secondary research can take many forms, but the most common types are:

Statistical analysis

There is ample data available online from a variety of sources, often in the form of datasets. These datasets are often open-source or downloadable at a low cost, and are ideal for conducting statistical analyses such as hypothesis testing or regression analysis.

Credible sources for existing data include:

  • The government
  • Government agencies
  • Non-governmental organizations
  • Educational institutions
  • Businesses or consultancies
  • Libraries or archives
  • Newspapers, academic journals, or magazines

Literature reviews

A literature review is a survey of preexisting scholarly sources on your topic. It provides an overview of current knowledge, allowing you to identify relevant themes, debates, and gaps in the research you analyze. You can later apply these to your own work, or use them as a jumping-off point to conduct primary research of your own.

Structured much like a regular academic paper (with a clear introduction, body, and conclusion), a literature review is a great way to evaluate the current state of research and demonstrate your knowledge of the scholarly debates around your topic.

Tip
A literature review is not a summary. Instead, it critically analyzes, synthesizes, and evaluates sources to give you and/or your audience a clear picture of the state of existing work on your research topic.

Case studies

A case study is a detailed study of a specific subject. It is usually qualitative in nature and can focus on  a person, group, place, event, organization, or phenomenon. A case study is a great way to utilize existing research to gain concrete, contextual, and in-depth knowledge about your real-world subject.

You can choose to focus on just one complex case, exploring a single subject in great detail, or examine multiple cases if you’d prefer to compare different aspects of your topic. Preexisting interviews, observational studies, or other sources of primary data make for great case studies.

Content analysis

Content analysis is a research method that studies patterns in recorded communication by utilizing existing texts. It can be either quantitative or qualitative in nature, depending on whether you choose to analyze countable or measurable patterns, or more interpretive ones. Content analysis is popular in communication studies, but it is also widely used in historical analysis, anthropology, and psychology to make more semantic qualitative inferences.

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Examples of secondary research

Secondary research is a broad research approach that can be pursued any way you’d like. Here are a few examples of different ways you can use secondary research to explore your research topic.

Example: Statistical analysis
You are interested in the characteristics of Americans enrolled in Affordable Care Act coverage. You utilize enrollment data from the US government’s Department of Health and Human Resources to observe how these characteristics change over time.
Example: Literature review
You are interested in the reactions of campus police to student protest movements on campus. You decide to conduct a literature review of scholarly works about student protest movements in the last 100 years.
Example: Case study
You are interested in the acclimatization process of formerly incarcerated individuals. You decide to compile data from structured interviews with those recently released from a prison facility in your hometown into a case study.
Example: Content analysis
You are interested in how often employment issues came up in political campaigns during the Great Depression. You choose to analyze campaign speeches for the frequency of terms such as “unemployment,” “jobs,” and “work.”

Advantages and disadvantages of secondary research

Secondary research is a very common research approach, but has distinct advantages and disadvantages.

Advantages of secondary research

Advantages include:

  • Secondary data is very easy to source and readily available.
  • It is also often free or accessible through your educational institution’s library or network, making it much cheaper to conduct than primary research.
  • As you are relying on research that already exists, conducting secondary research is much less time consuming than primary research. Since your timeline is so much shorter, your research can be ready to publish sooner.
  • Using data from others allows you to show reproducibility and replicability, bolstering prior research and situating your own work within your field.

Disadvantages of secondary research

Disadvantages include:

  • Ease of access does not signify credibility. It’s important to be aware that secondary research is not always reliable, and can often be out of date. It’s critical to analyze any data you’re thinking of using prior to getting started, using a method like the CRAAP test.
  • Secondary research often relies on primary research already conducted. If this original research is biased in any way, those research biases could creep into the secondary results.

Many researchers using the same secondary research to form similar conclusions can also take away from the uniqueness and reliability of your research. Many datasets become “kitchen-sink” models, where too many variables are added in an attempt to draw increasingly niche conclusions from overused data. Data cleansing may be necessary to test the quality of the research.

Frequently asked questions

Is a systematic review primary research?

A systematic review is secondary research because it uses existing research. You don’t collect new data yourself.

How do I decide which research methods to use?

The research methods you use depend on the type of data you need to answer your research question.

  • If you want to measure something or test a hypothesis, use quantitative methods. If you want to explore ideas, thoughts and meanings, use qualitative methods.
  • If you want to analyze a large amount of readily-available data, use secondary data. If you want data specific to your purposes with control over how it is generated, collect primary data.
  • If you want to establish cause-and-effect relationships between variables, use experimental methods. If you want to understand the characteristics of a research subject, use descriptive methods.
What’s the difference between quantitative and qualitative methods?

Quantitative research deals with numbers and statistics, while qualitative research deals with words and meanings.

Quantitative methods allow you to systematically measure variables and test hypotheses. Qualitative methods allow you to explore concepts and experiences in more detail.

Sources in this article

We strongly encourage students to use sources in their work. You can cite our article (APA Style) or take a deep dive into the articles below.

This Scribbr article

George, T. (2023, January 20). What is Secondary Research? | Definition, Types, & Examples. Scribbr. Retrieved February 6, 2023, from https://www.scribbr.com/methodology/secondary-research/

Sources

Largan, C., & Morris, T. M. (2019). Qualitative Secondary Research: A Step-By-Step Guide (1st ed.). SAGE Publications Ltd.

Peloquin, D., DiMaio, M., Bierer, B., & Barnes, M. (2020). Disruptive and avoidable: GDPR challenges to secondary research uses of data. European Journal of Human Genetics, 28(6), 697–705. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41431-020-0596-x

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Tegan George

Tegan is an American based in Amsterdam, with master's degrees in political science and education administration. While she is definitely a political scientist at heart, her experience working at universities led to a passion for making social science topics more approachable and exciting to students.