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2.3: Primary Research Versus Secondary Research

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    Before you begin to answer your questions, you’ll need to know about two types of research: primary research and secondary research. And, you’ll need to learn about the differences between them.

    Primary research is usually the “raw stuff” of research—the materials that researchers gather on their own and then analyze in their writing. For example, primary research would include the following:

    • The experiments done by chemists, physicists, biologists, and other scientists.
    • Researcher-conducted interviews, surveys, polls, or observations.
    • The particular documents or texts (novels, speeches, government documents, and so forth) studied by scholars in fields like English, history, or political science.

    Secondary research is usually considered research from texts where one researcher is quoting someone else to make a point. For example, secondary research would include the following:

    • An article in a scientific journal that reported on the results of someone else’s experiment.
    • A magazine or newspaper account of an interview, survey, or poll done by another researcher.
    • An article in a scholarly journal or a book about a particular novel or speech.

    When you quote from another article in your research project, your writing becomes an example of secondary research. When other researchers quote information from your research project in their research project, your research project is considered a secondary source for them. And if a researcher decides to write about you (a biography, for example) and if that researcher examines and quotes from some of the writings you did in college-- like the research project you are working on right now-- then your project would probably be considered a primary source.

    Obviously, the divisions between primary and secondary research are not crystal-clear. But even though these differences between primary and secondary research are somewhat abstract, the differences are good ones to keep in mind as you consider what to research and as you conduct your research. For example, if you were writing a research project on the connection between pharmaceutical advertising and the high cost of prescription drugs, it would be useful and informative to consider the differences between primary research on the subject (an article where the researcher documents statistical connections) and the secondary research (an essay where another researcher summarizes a variety of studies done by others).

    Of course, the term “secondary” research has nothing to do with the quality or value of the research; it just means that to answer the questions of your research project and to support your point, you are relying in great part on the observations and opinions of others.

    Most research projects completed by students in writing classes are based almost exclusively in secondary research because most students in introductory writing classes don’t have the time, resources, or expertise to conduct credible primary research. However, sometimes some modest primary research is a realistic option. For example, if you were writing about the dangers of Internet-based computer crime and someone on your campus was an expert in the subject and was available for an interview, your interview of her would be primary research. If you were writing about the problems of parking on your campus, you might conduct some primary research in the form of observations, surveys of the students that drive and try to park on campus, interviews of the campus officials in charge of parking, and so forth.

    Exercise 1.2

    Working alone or collaboratively in small groups, answer the following questions:

    • What other sorts of evidence do you think you would find that would count as “primary” research? What other sorts of evidence do you think would count as “secondary” research?
    • Think about the kind of topics you are interested in researching and writing about. What sorts of “primary” research can you imagine examining that might be useful in your writing? What sorts of “secondary” research can you imagine examining that might be useful in your writing?

    This page titled 2.3: Primary Research Versus Secondary Research is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Steven D. Krause.

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