Primary Research | Definition, Types, & Examples

Primary research is a research method that relies on direct data collection, rather than relying on data that’s already been collected by someone else. In other words, primary research is any type of research that you undertake yourself, firsthand, while using data that has already been collected is called secondary research.

Example: Primary research
You are interested in the quality of vegan options offered at your campus dining hall. You decide to conduct a survey of vegan students, asking them their thoughts.

Primary research is often used in qualitative research, particularly in survey methodology, questionnaires, focus groups, and various types of interviews. While quantitative primary research does exist, it’s not as common.

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 primary research

Primary research is any research that you conduct yourself. It can be as simple as a 2-question survey, or as in-depth as a years-long longitudinal study. The only key is that data must be collected firsthand by you.

Primary research is often used to supplement or strengthen existing secondary research. It is usually exploratory in nature, concerned with examining a research question where no preexisting knowledge exists. It is also sometimes called original research for this reason.

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Types of primary research

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

In order to be successful, it’s important to carefully define your population and sample prior to getting started. Chances are you won’t be able to access every single member of your population, but your research should always aim to be generalisable to that population. This prevents sampling bias and selection bias from creeping in, affecting or invalidating your results.

Surveys and questionnaires

Surveys and questionnaires collect information about a group of people by asking them questions and analyzing the results. They are a solid choice if your research topic seeks to investigate something about the characteristics, preferences, opinions, or beliefs of a group of people.

Surveys and questionnaires can take place online, in person, or through the mail. It is best to have a combination of open-ended and closed-ended questions, and how the questions are phrased matters. Be sure to avoid leading questions, and ask any related questions in groups, starting with the most basic ones first.

Observational studies

Observational studies are an easy and popular way to answer a research question based purely on what you, the researcher, observes. If there are practical or ethical concerns that prevent you from conducting a traditional experiment, observational studies are often a good stopgap.

There are three types of observational studies: cross-sectional studies, cohort studies, and case-control studies. If you decide to conduct observational research, you can choose the one that’s best for you. All three are quite straightforward and easy to design just beware of confounding variables and observer bias creeping into your analysis.

Interviews and focus groups

Similarly to surveys and questionnaires, interviews and focus groups also rely on asking questions to collect information about a group of people. However, how this is done is slightly different. Instead of sending your questions out into the world, interviews and focus groups involve two or more people one of whom is you, the interviewer, who asks the questions.

There are 3 main types of interviews:

While interviews are a rich source of information, they can also be deceptively challenging to do well. Be careful of interviewer bias creeping into your process. This is best mitigated by avoiding double-barreled questions and paying close attention to your tone and delivery while asking questions.

Alternatively, a focus group is a group interview, led by a moderator. Focus groups can provide more nuanced interactions than individual interviews, but their small sample size means that external validity is low.

Examples of primary research

Primary research can often be quite simple to pursue yourself. Here are a few examples of different research methods you can use to explore different topics.

Example: Survey questionnaire
You are interested in the perceptions of your fellow students on universal healthcare. You decide to conduct a survey of students, asking them their thoughts.
Example: Observational study
You are interested in the reactions of campus police to student protest movements on campus. You decide to observe firsthand, blending into crowds and conducting a naturalistic observation.
Example: Interview
You are interested in the acclimatization process of first-year international students in your dorm. You decide to conduct a semi-structured interview of these students, asking them their thoughts on homesickness, cultural competencies, and perceptions of assimilation.

Advantages and disadvantages of primary research

Primary research is a great choice for many research projects, but it has distinct advantages and disadvantages.

Advantages of primary research

Advantages include:

  • The ability to conduct really tailored, thorough research, down to the ‘nitty-gritty’ of your topic. You decide what you want to study or observe and how to go about doing that.
  • You maintain control over the quality of the data collected, and can ensure firsthand that it is objective, reliable, and valid.
  • The ensuing results are yours, for you to disseminate as you see fit. You maintain proprietary control over what you find out, allowing you to share your findings with like-minded individuals or those conducting related research that interests you for replication or discussion purposes.

Disadvantages of primary research

Disadvantages include:

  • In order to be done well, primary research can be very expensive and time consuming. If you are constrained in terms of time or funding, it can be very difficult to conduct your own high-quality primary research.
  • Primary research is often insufficient as a standalone research method, requiring secondary research to bolster it.
  • Primary research can be prone to various types of research bias. Bias can manifest on the part of the researcher as observer bias, Pygmalion effect, or demand characteristics. It can occur on the part of participants as a Hawthorne effect or social desirability bias.

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Frequently asked questions

What’s the difference between exploratory and explanatory research?

Exploratory research explores the main aspects of a new or barely researched question.

Explanatory research explains the causes and effects of an already widely researched question.

How do I prevent confounding variables from interfering with my research?

There are several methods you can use to decrease the impact of confounding variables on your research: restriction, matching, statistical control, and randomisation.

In restriction, you restrict your sample by only including certain subjects that have the same values of potential confounding variables.

In matching, you match each of the subjects in your treatment group with a counterpart in the comparison group. The matched subjects have the same values on any potential confounding variables, and only differ in the independent variable.

In statistical control, you include potential confounders as variables in your regression.

In randomisation, you randomly assign the treatment (or independent variable) in your study to a sufficiently large number of subjects, which allows you to control for all potential confounding variables.

What’s the difference between a questionnaire and a survey?

A questionnaire is a data collection tool or instrument, while a survey is an overarching research method that involves collecting and analysing data from people using questionnaires.

What are the benefits of collecting original data?

When conducting research, collecting original data has significant advantages:

  • You can tailor data collection to your specific research aims (e.g., understanding the needs of your consumers or user testing your website).
  • You can control and standardise the process for high reliability and validity (e.g., choosing appropriate measurements and sampling methods).

However, there are also some drawbacks: data collection can be time-consuming, labour-intensive, and expensive. In some cases, it’s more efficient to use secondary data that has already been collected by someone else, but the data might be less reliable.

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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.