Primary research – what is it?
Primary research involves gathering data that has not been collected before. Methods to collect it can include interviews, surveys, observations or any type of research that you go out and collect yourself. The primary research will in turn act as a primary source such as an original study, document, object or eyewitness account. You may need to conduct primary research if there is little data available on a subject or you want to compare results to existing research.
This type of research differs from secondary research which involves collecting data that already exists. A discussion or evaluation on the findings of a primary source or an analytical report on the way an original piece of research was performed is a secondary source.
Primary research can be useful not just in academic settings but in the workplace and in our personal lives. Primary and secondary research can be used together. For example if you want to support your primary evidence you may want to quote from an interview and use the opinions of other authors who have critiqued or evaluated the way a piece of research was done.
There are some important concerns that you will need to consistently address as you conduct your primary research. Here are the key ones:
Ethics - ensure that you have the permission of the people you will be studying in order to conduct research involving them. Check with your faculty or academic unit. Will your findings be anonymised? – let those involved in your study know. Be sensitive to others and carefully word interview or survey questions. For a comprehensive guide please see the University of Southampton Ethics Policy
Don’t overgeneralise your results – the research you have done on your subject may not contain the only data that exists or that will exist. Use trends and patterns, but if your research relates to people remember that over time people and situations are dynamic and subject to change.
Know what is valid – are there errors in your findings? There may be irrelevant or incomplete answers in your questionnaires which may throw results off course. Be prepared to omit unreliable information.
Avoid bias – Bias can be described as prejudice, partiality, unfairness, sway, pre-disposition to ideas or questions you may ask. To avoid bias you need to be aware that it exists. To learn more about the different types of bias and how to address them take a look at the related resources on the right hand side of this page.
Consider other factors. You may not be able to study all the factors relating to a group, event or topic you are researching so be prepared to include this in your analysis. By doing this you are ensuring that the judgments you are making are balanced and informed. Readers of you research will see this too.
Primary research methods
Before conducting your primary research think about which method is the most appropriate for the area under investigation. You will also need to consider what technology you wish to use and which best fits the specific nature of your research, particularly if you are working at postgraduate research level. The most common types of primary research methods are outlined below.
These may be face to face, over the phone or via email. Think about the technology you have and choose the form that you are comfortable with. Think also about the impact of the technology used in the responses. Be prepared with your questions, pay attention to what is being said, and don’t get distracted by other topics.
Questionnaires and surveys
Think about the particular issue or size of group you want to focus on. Think about the questions you want to ask and how – will this be online or in person for example?
Focus groups participate in a guided discussion of the topic, usually facilitated by the researcher.
A useful method for gathering information. It will involve observing people, occurrences, and other variables important to the research or study. Observation entails measuring and recording quantitative or qualitative data. This research method is useful for gaining knowledge without the biased viewpoint sometimes present in interviews.
This involves finding patterns and trends in data and creating a set of results from the overall picture. You can use primary sources or new data you have collected yourself.
For more details of the types of primary research see the links and factsheets provided on this page.
A brief guide to conducting surveys by the University of Manchester [PDF]
Writing a research proposal by Exeter University (a guide to writing your PhD. proposal) [PDF]
Conducting the interview by the Open University
Creating good interview and survey questions by Purdue University
Using a questionnaire by the Open University
What is bias in qualitative research? by FocusGroupTips.com
What is researcher bias? by David Byrne in Project Planner (Sage research methods)