Primary and Secondary Research: What's the Difference?

3 minute read

As you’re conducting research, you’ve probably come across the terms primary and secondary research and wondered what the difference is between the two. In short, primary research is work that the researcher does themselves, and secondary research is work that summarizes and/or references another researcher’s work. Most likely, you will focus on primary research in any research papers that you write. However, secondary research is still important. Read on to learn more about the difference between primary and secondary research.

What is Primary Research

The purpose of primary research is to answer a specific research question that you have. There are many different types of primary research that you can conduct. One type is experimental. In an experiment, researchers are testing to see if  one variable causes something else to happen. To do so, researchers randomly assign participants to either the control condition(s) or the experimental condition(s). For example, a researcher may randomly assign participants to write down a list of vocabulary words for five minutes or say them aloud for five minutes. Then the researcher will measure the average number of words that each condition remembers. If the group that writes remembers statistically more words than the one that speaks, then the researcher concludes that the study strategy caused the participants to remember more words. 

Another type of primary research is observational. One concern with experimental research is that people may act differently when they know that they are in an experiment. Thus,  sometimes researchers like to observe what people do in the real world without a researcher interfering. For example, an environmental researcher may go to a cafeteria and count the number of people who separate their recyclables and trash before putting them in the bins. 

A third type of primary research is correlational. Sometimes it would be unethical or impossible to conduct an experiment for a given topic, so researchers do correlational work instead. Correlational work is different from experimental work because correlations are about (linear) relationships between variables, whereas experimental work is about causation. As an example of correlational work, a researcher may conduct a mental health survey and use statistical methods to identify if there is a correlation between certain psychological factors and worse mental health outcomes. Obviously, it would be unethical to conduct an experiment about this topic because a researcher shouldn’t initially cause participants to have worse mental health.  

What is Secondary Research

Doing secondary research deepens your understanding of your research topic and helps you narrow down what research question you want to focus on. Additionally, as I discussed in this article about how to outline research papers, in the introduction section of your paper, you will reference several academic studies that relate to your research topic. To find these academic studies, you can use an academic paper database, such as Google Scholar, or a database that your school library has access to. Most likely, there will be a lot of studies that you could reference in your introduction. It can be hard to decide which ones to include. Luckily, there are researchers who have already written papers chock-full of key secondary sources about a given field. 

Two types of research that focus on secondary sources are literature reviews and meta-analyses. A literature review is a summary of key work that has been conducted about a certain topic over several years. It is really useful because it describes how different studies relate to each other and how the field has developed over time. In a meta-analysis, a researcher analyzes the results of several studies about a topic and statistically determines if those studies obtained similar results. (A meta-analysis is technically a type of primary research, since the researchers are doing their own analytical work. However, the meta-analysis still contains many secondary sources.)

To use the literature review/meta-analysis correctly, make sure to read and cite the original source that the authors reference. As I’m reading a literature review or meta-analysis, I take note of which studies the authors discussed that are relevant to my own introduction. Then, I go to the original source and read/skim that paper. You should also make sure to cite the literature review/meta-analysis. 


In this article, you learned about the difference between primary and secondary research. You gained ideas about different types of primary research that you can conduct, which will most likely be the focus of a research paper. However, you may want to write a literature review instead. Literature reviews have been immensely helpful for my own understanding of psychological research, and I always appreciate researchers who do them! 

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