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What is secondary research?

Last updated

7 February 2023


Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Cathy Heath

The research process doesn’t just involve gathering new data through primary research activities such as an experiment, focus group, or questionnaire. Researchers often rely first on existing data to arrive at a conclusion. This existing data is known as secondary research.  There are numerous benefits to using secondary research, especially when it comes to meeting deadlines and reducing research costs.

In this guide, we explain in detail what secondary research is, including the difference between this research method and primary research, the different sources for secondary research, and how you can benefit from this research method.

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Overview of secondary research

Secondary research is a method by which the researcher finds existing data, filters it to meet the context of their research question, analyzes it, and then summarizes it to come up with valid research conclusions.

This research method involves searching for information, often via the internet, using keywords or search terms relevant to the research question. The goal is to find data from internal and external sources that are up-to-date and authoritative, and that fully answer the question.

Secondary research reviews existing research and looks for patterns, trends, and insights, which helps determine what further research, if any, is needed.

Secondary research methods

Secondary research is more economical than primary research, mainly because the methods for this type of research use existing data and do not require the data to be collected first-hand or by a third party that you have to pay.

Secondary research is referred to as ‘desk research’ or ‘desktop research,’ since the data can be retrieved from behind a desk instead of having to host a focus group and create the research from scratch.

Finding existing research is relatively easy since there are numerous accessible sources organizations can use to obtain the information they need. These  include:

  • The internet: This data is either free or behind a paywall. Yet, while there are plenty of sites on the internet with information that can be used, businesses need to be careful to collect information from trusted and authentic websites to ensure the data is accurate.

  • Government agencies: Government agencies are typically known to provide valuable, trustworthy information that companies can use for their research.

  • The public library: This establishment holds paper-based and online sources of reliable information, including business databases, magazines, newspapers, and government publications. Be mindful of any copyright restrictions that may apply when using these sources.

  • Commercial information: This source provides first-hand information on politics, demographics, and economic developments through information aggregators, newspapers, magazines, radio, blogs, podcasts, and journals. This information may be free or behind a paywall.

  • Educational and scientific facilities: Universities, colleges, and specialized research facilities carry out significant amounts of research. As a result, they have data that may be available to the public and businesses for use.

Key differences between primary research and secondary research

Both primary and secondary research methods provide researchers with vital, complementary information, despite some major differences between the two approaches.

Primary research involves gathering first-hand information by directly working with the target market, users, and interviewees. Researchers ask questions directly using surveys, interviews, and focus groups.

Through the primary research method, researchers obtain targeted responses and accurate results directly related to their overall research goals.

Secondary research uses existing data, such as published reports, that have already been completed through earlier primary and secondary research. Researchers can use this existing data to support their research goals and preliminary research findings.

Other notable differences between primary and secondary research  include:

  • Relevance: Primary research uses raw data relevant to the investigation's goals. Secondary research may contain irrelevant data or may not neatly fit the parameters of the researcher's goals.

  • Time: Primary research takes a lot of time. Secondary research can be done relatively quickly.

  • Researcher bias: Primary research can be subject to researcher bias.

  • Cost: Primary research can be expensive. Secondary research can be more affordable because the data is often free. However, valuable data is often behind a paywall. The piece of secondary research you want may not exist or be very expensive, so you may have to turn to primary research to fill the information gap.

When to conduct secondary research

Both primary and secondary research have roles to play in providing a holistic and accurate understanding of a topic. Generally, secondary research is done at the beginning of the research phase, especially if the topic is new.

Secondary research can provide context and critical background information to understand the issue at hand and identify any gaps, that could then be filled by primary research.

How to conduct secondary research

Researchers usually follow several steps for secondary research.

1. Identify and define the research topic

Before starting either of these research methods, you first need to determine the following:

  • Topic to be researched

  • Purpose of this research

  • Audience

For instance, you may want to explore a question, determine why something happened, or confirm whether an issue is true.

At this stage, you also need to consider what search terms or keywords might be the most effective for this topic. You could do this by looking at what synonyms exist for your topic, the use of industry terms and acronyms, as well as the balance between statistical or quantitative data and contextual data to support your research topic.

It’s also essential to define what you don’t want to cover in your secondary research process. This might be choosing only to use recent information or only focusing on research based on a particular country or type of consumer. From there, once you know what you want to know and why you can decide whether you need to use both primary and secondary research to answer your questions.

2. Find research and existing data sources

Once you have determined your research topic, select the information sources that will provide you with the most appropriate and relevant data for your research. If you need secondary research, you want to determine where this information can likely be found, for example:

  • Newspapers

  • Trade associations

  • Government sources

  • Internet

Create a list of the relevant data sources, and other organizations or people that can help you find what you need.

3. Begin searching and collecting the existing data

Once you have narrowed down your sources, you will start gathering this information and putting it into an organized system. This often involves:

  • Checking the credibility of the source

  • Setting up meetings with research teams

  • Signing up for accounts to access certain websites or journals

One search result on the internet often leads to other pieces of helpful information, known as ‘pearl gathering’ or ‘pearl harvesting.’ This is usually a serendipitous activity, which can lead to valuable nuggets of information you may not have been aware of or considered.

4. Combine the data and compare the results

Once you have gathered all the data, start going through it by carefully examining all the information and comparing it to ensure the data is usable and that it isn’t duplicated or corrupted. Contradictory information is useful—just make sure you note the contradiction and the context. Be mindful of copyright and plagiarism when using secondary research and always cite your sources.

Once you have assessed everything, you will begin to look at what this information tells you by checking out the trends and comparing the different datasets. You will also investigate what this information means for your research, whether it helps your overall goal, and any gaps or deficiencies.

5. Analyze your data and explore further

In the final stage of conducting secondary research, you will analyze the data you have gathered and determine if it answers the questions you had before you started researching. Check that you understand the information, whether it fills in all your gaps, and whether it provides you with other insights or actions you should take next.

If you still need further data, repeat these steps to find additional information that can help you explore your topic more deeply. You may also need to supplement what you find with primary research to ensure that your data is complete, accurate, transparent, and credible.

The advantages of secondary research

There are numerous advantages to performing secondary research. Some key benefits are:

  • Quicker than primary research: Because the data is already available, you can usually find the information you need fairly quickly. Not only will secondary research help you research faster, but you will also start optimizing the data more quickly.

  • Plenty of available data: There are countless sources for you to choose from, making research more accessible. This data may be already compiled and arranged, such as statistical information,  so you can quickly make use of it.

  • Lower costs: Since you will not have to carry out the research from scratch, secondary research tends to be much more affordable than primary research.

  • Opens doors to further research: Existing research usually identifies whether more research needs to be done. This could mean follow-up surveys or telephone interviews with subject matter experts (SME) to add value to your own research.

The disadvantages of secondary research

While there are plenty of benefits to secondary research are plenty, there are some issues you should be aware of. These include:

  • Credibility issues: It is important to verify the sources used. Some information may be biased and not reflect or hide, relevant issues or challenges. It could also be inaccurate.

  • No recent information: Even if data may seem accurate, it may not be up to date, so the information you gather may no longer be correct. Outdated research can distort your overall findings.

  • Poor quality: Because secondary research tends to make conclusions from primary research data, the success of secondary research will depend on the quality and context of the research that has already been completed. If the research you are using is of poor quality, this will bring down the quality of your own findings.

  • Research doesn’t exist or is not easily accessible, or is expensive: Sometimes the information you need is confidential or proprietary, such as sales or earnings figures. Many information-based businesses attach value to the information they hold or publish, so the costs to access this information can be prohibitive.


Should you complete secondary research or primary research first?

Due to the costs and time involved in primary research, it may be more beneficial to conduct secondary market research first. This will save you time and provide a picture of what issues you may come across in your research. This allows you to focus on using more expensive primary research to get the specific answers you want.

What should you ask yourself before using secondary research data?

Check the date of the research to make sure it is still relevant. Also, determine the data source so you can assess how credible and trustworthy it is likely to be. For example, data from known brands, professional organizations, and even government agencies are usually excellent sources to use in your secondary research, as it tends to be trustworthy.

Be careful when using some websites and personal blogs as they may be based on opinions rather than facts. However, these sources can be useful for determining sentiment about a product or service, and help direct any primary research.

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