Best Practice

Primary Research: Methods and Best Practices

Primary research deals with the collection of new data. What research methods deal with primary data and what inquiries are best suited for primary research? We'll look at these questions in this article.
Roehl Sybing
Content creator and qualitative data expert
  1. Introduction
  2. What is the definition of primary research?
  3. What are examples of primary research?
  4. Primary vs. secondary research
  5. Types of primary research
  6. When to use primary research


Conducting research involves two types of data: primary data and secondary data. While secondary research deals with existing data, primary research collects new data. Ultimately, the most appropriate type of research depends on which method is best suited to your research question.

While this article discusses the difference between primary and secondary research, the main focus is on primary research, the types of data collected through primary research, and considerations for researchers who conduct primary research.

Primary research methods look to collect new data to address novel research questions.

What is the definition of primary research?

Simply put, researchers conduct primary research to gather new information. When existing data cannot address the research inquiry at hand, the researcher usually needs to collect new data to meet their research objectives.

How do you identify primary research?

Primary research uses collected data that hasn't been previously documented. Primary research typically means collecting data straight from the source (e.g., interviewing a research participant, observing a cultural practice or phenomenon firsthand).

Note that other divides that you should also consider include that of collecting quantitative or qualitative data, and of conducting basic or applied research. Each of these dimensions informs and is informed by your research inquiry.

What are the advantages of primary research?

New data, particularly that which addresses a research gap, can contribute to a novel inquiry and prove compelling to the research audience. When a researcher conducts a literature review and generates a problem statement for their research, they can identify what new data needs to be collected and what primary research method can be used to collect it.

Primary research studies ultimately contribute to theoretical developments and novel insights that an analysis of existing data might not have identified. Research publications in some fields may place a premium on primary research for its potential to generate new scientific knowledge as a result.

What are the disadvantages of primary research?

Primary research is time-consuming and potentially expensive to conduct, considering the equipment and resources needed to collect new data as well as the time required to engage with the field and collect data.

Moreover, primary research relies on new data that has yet to be documented elsewhere, meaning that the research audience is less familiar with the primary data being presented. This might raise issues of transparency and research rigor (e.g., how does the audience know that the data they are shown is trustworthy?).

The time and resources required to conduct primary research can be significant. Photo by UX Indonesia.

What are examples of primary research?

Primary research is common in various fields of research. Let's look at some typical examples of primary research in three different areas.

Education research

Teaching and learning is a field that relies on evidence-based data to make policy recommendations affecting teachers, learning materials, and even classroom requirements. As a result, there are countless methods for collecting relevant data on the various aspects of education.

Observations, interviews, and assessments are just some of the primary research methods that are employed when studying education contexts. Education research acknowledges the full variety of situated differences found in the diversity of learners and their schooling contexts. This makes collecting data that is relevant to the given context and research inquiry crucial to understanding teaching and learning.

Primary research in education can involve data collected from observations, interviews, and assessments. Photo by Shubham Sharan.

Market research

Businesses often rely on primary research to understand the target market for their products and services. Since competing businesses tend not to share research on customer insights with each other, primary research collecting original data can be a necessity.

Focus groups, surveys, and user research are typical research tools employed by businesses. Within market research, the goal is typically to understand customers' preferences and use cases for specific products and services.

Data analysis for market research reports is essential for understanding customer insights. Photo by Stephen Dawson.

Cultural studies

Fields such as anthropology and sociology count on primary research for understanding cultures and communities. Ethnographic research acknowledges that thick description of cultures and phenomena is more meaningful than only generating universal theories, making the collection of primary data essential to understanding the full diversity of the social world.

Researchers examining culture often collect data through interviews, observations, and photovoice, among other research methods. These methods look at the social world through the eyes of the research participants to generate an immersive view of cultures and groups with which audiences may not be familiar.

Field research in areas like anthropology and sociology collect primary data to document cultural and social practices. Photo by pavan gupta.

Primary vs. secondary research

Primary research data stands in contrast to secondary research data, which is any data that has been previously collected and documented. In some situations, existing data may be abundant and available, making secondary research a more feasible approach to generating theory and identifying key insights.

Secondary research methods are employed in all fields of research. Market researchers conduct secondary research when there is already existing data about a target market. In particular, secondary market research might look at previous trends in the popularity of products to make predictions about the demand for new products.

Scholarly researchers can use secondary sources such as corpora, news articles, and online videos to make assertions about language and culture. Analytical approaches such as discourse analysis and content analysis can be well suited to analyzing data collected through secondary research methods.

Ultimately, primary and secondary research go hand in hand. The main function of research in building knowledge does not necessarily depend on the use of primary data collection. Rather, it is a matter of whether data needs to be collected in order to address your research inquiry, or relevant data already exists and you can access it.

Types of primary research

There are many research methods used to collect data for primary research. The research method that works best for you depends on what you are looking to do with your research project.

This section lists some of the common primary data collection methods that researchers rely on.


One-on-one interviews are useful for capturing perspectives from research participants. Direct interactions can tell researchers what perspectives their research participants have and the thinking behind those perspectives.

Interview research is a complex and detailed methodology that includes several types of interviews to suit various research inquiries. Researchers can choose between structured interviews, semi-structured interviews, and unstructured interviews, depending on the nature of interaction they are looking to establish.

Interviews collect data about people's perspectives. Photo by Kate Oseen.

Focus groups

Focus groups are discussions that involve multiple research participants and are led by a moderator. Similar to interviews, the primary goal is to gather information about people's perspectives. Yet focus groups are distinct, because they can capture how people interact and build meaning when discussing a particular topic.

Market researchers may consider conducting a focus group discussion when they want to know more about how a particular group feels about a product or service. Researchers in linguistics and anthropology might be interested in observing how a group of people construct meaning with each other.

Focus groups collect primary data from multiple research participants at once. Photo by Antenna.


In research involving naturalistic inquiry and the social world, the researcher can gather information directly from the field through observational research methods. Primary data takes the form of field notes, audio and video recordings, their resulting transcripts, and even images of objects of interest.

For quantitative research inquiries, observation entails measuring the amount of activity or the frequency of particular phenomena. Qualitative observations look for patterns in cultural or social practices and document significant events in the field.

Observation is one of the key methods of capturing data about the world around us. Photo by Maël BALLAND.


When the objective is to capture perspectives from large numbers of people, surveys are a good research method for collecting novel data. In-person questionnaires and online surveys can be used to quickly collect data at scale.

Surveys are used for conducting primary research in both quantitative and qualitative research. The structure of survey questions provide data that can be measured quantitatively, while open-ended survey responses require qualitative data analysis.

Online surveys and questionnaires are useful tools for primary research. Photo by ODISSEI.


While the above methods emphasize or are involved with naturalistic inquiry, experiments are a different form of primary research that is far more controlled. When you want to understand the relationship between various elements in a certain context (e.g., the effect of water and fertilizer on plant growth), a controlled experiment is a typical research approach to empirically establish scientific knowledge.

Experiments focus on a specific set of factors from the research phenomenon to understand causal relationships between variables. Experiments are a common primary research method in physical sciences, but they are also extensively used in psychology, education, and political science, among other areas.

Experiments collect highly controlled primary data. Photo by Louis Reed.

When to use primary research

The decision to conduct a primary or secondary study is a question of whether existing data is sufficient to satisfy the research inquiry at hand. Where data does not exist, primary research should be conducted.

Consider an example research study regarding ideal teaching methods in elementary school contexts in a developing country in Asia. Just because there is abundant data on the same topic in elementary schools in Western countries does not preclude the possibility of novel theoretical developments in schools in Asia. This becomes particularly important if insights based on existing data from other contexts may not be applicable to the present context.

Note that this does not mean that a secondary research study is any less novel than a primary study. Indeed, many fields and methodologies rely extensively on analyzing existing data. For example, studies that employ discourse analysis and content analysis typically (though not always) rely on existing sources of data to facilitate understanding of language use in real-world situations.

As a result, the choice between primary and secondary research can be seen as more of a practical consideration than a matter of a study's potential contribution to scientific knowledge. Novelty in research is as much about the data collection as it is about the resulting analysis. If you require data for your study where none exists, then data from primary research is your best option.