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Research in Education (Extended Campus - Catherine Leahy-Brine)

This guide is for students enrolled at Fitchburg State through the Catherine Leahy-Brine extended campus program.

Primary Research vs. Secondary Research: Why does it matter? How do I tell which one I'm looking at?

Different databases may contain different types of sources. When you are conducting research you need to consider what types are most likely to contain the type of information you need to answer your research question. Depending on the database you might find books, magazine articles, trade publication articles, scholarly journal articles, documents, newspapers, videos, audio clips, images, et cetera. For the purposes of your Education Literature Review we will focus on sources that are primary research studies. Before you can do that, you need to know the difference between primary research and secondary research, how to identify which one you are looking at when you evaluate a source that you find and why the emphasis gets placed on using primary research studies.

Primary Research: This is research that is done by the author of the source you are using where that author conducted some method of research to gather new data that s/he then reports, analyzes and interprets in that source. Primary = original, first-hand; the author of the source generated the research data they are using.

Secondary Research: This is when an author of the source you are using gathers existing data, usually produced by someone else, and they then report, analyze or interpret that other person's data. Secondary = second-hand; the author of the source did not generate the research data s/he is using.

Elements of a Primary Research Source Elements of a Secondary Research Source

Primary (original) research can be in the form of an:

  • experiment
  • survey
  • case study
  • focus group
  • interviews

The key is that it generates some type of data that the researcher can then analyze and utilize to prove/disprove their research question.

Secondary research is usually in the form of a review. There are different types of reviews:

  • Literature Review - Provides a representative collection of the primary research studies that have previously been conducted by others usually within a specified time period such as the last 10 years to try to answer his/her own research question without doing primary research himself/herself. The author summarize commonalities, differences and identify holes where more research is needed through his/her interpretation of other researchers' data.
  • Systematic Review - Is an expanded literature review that tries to collect and summarize ALL of the primary research studies that have previously been conducted by others as they try to answer their own research question.
  • Meta-analysis - Is when the author of a systematic review uses statistical methods to summarize the results of the data from the studies s/he found. No new data is being generated because of primary research - the author of the meta-analysis is using statistics to enhance her/his analysis of other researchers' data.

It is also often used in other types of resources such as non-research based articles, books, documentaries, et cetera to provide background information that ties back to primary research that the person using the source can locate if they want to see the actual primary research study.

Author is the researcher and conducts an original study gathering the data that results from that study. Author gathers only research studies and data that were generated by other researchers.
Author will include a section that includes details about the research methods used, how data was gathered, participants, et cetera. Author includes little or no details about the research methodology used by the original researchers of the studies they used.
Author provides the reader with the data in the results section. Author may generalize the collective results and/or only highlight the results they felt were important. You don't have access to the original data to determine if the generalizations are accurate and/or if results key to your research question were left out.
Author begins the research study with a brief overview of previous research on the topic and relates where the study they are conducting fits into that scholarly conversation. With a secondary research source you only have the current author's context for how the selected research studies connect into the scholarly conversation on the topic. His/her context may differ from the context of one or more of the original researchers, but you won't know this unless you track down the original studies.
The reader of a primary research study can use the information provided in the methodology, analysis and results sections to help judge the quality of the study. The reader of a secondary resource has no way to judge the quality of the research studies selected by the author unless the reader tracks down the original study.
The reader, having access to the data, can analyze and interpret that data in context with their own research question.

The further away the reader gets from the original research source, the more likely the reader will lose or misinterpret the original context of the data being used.

For example:

I publish a research study (primary research) in 2014 that is focused on parent monitoring of there child's cell phone usage. In my study I said I surveyed 800 ninth graders in Massachusetts and that data I gathered for a specific question I asked showed that 10% don't have a cell phone, 70% have a cell phone on their parents plan and 20% have a cell phone on their own individual plan.

Another researcher uses my research in their literature review published in 2018 and summarizes my findings as "one survey found that 90% of ninth graders have cell phones". 

You find the 2018 article and generalize that author's summary of my findings to state that "a 2014 survey found that 10% of ninth graders don't have a cell phone".

How accurate is the context in which you interpret my data? How accurate is the context of the data for the person who reads your literature review? By the time you are using my data from the secondary resource neither you or your reader have any idea that this was a study of 800 participants, that it was focused in only one state, or that it included data for those with a phone as to whether they have their own phone plan or on their parents' plan.


Tips when first evaluating a source: Once you find a research-based source, read the abstract and/or methodologies section and ask yourself who conducted the actual research process to gather the data?

  • If the author(s) indicate they gathered the data first-hand by surveying a specific population, creating and running an experiment, conducting a focus group, observing a specific population/task, et cetera, they are doing primary research.
  • If the author(s) indicate that they used only data gathered from other people's research studies by reviewing the literature or research, they are doing secondary research. 

Common sources where primary research in the field of Education is published are:

  • Scholarly/academic journals - these are journals that are published by academic publishers (colleges, universities, et cetera) and professional organizations.
  • Conference Proceedings
  • Books
  • Dissertations
  • District, State or National Reports

Any of the above sources may also be peer-reviewed, meaning that the content is reviewed by other professionals in the field before it is published. Peer-reviewed, scholarly journals are considered to be high quality and often are a requirement in your research assignments because they are produced by experts and professionals in the field and all primary research articles are put through a peer-reviewed vetting process that is detailed by the journal publisher. It is also where professionals in the field in turn tend to publish their research for those same reasons. It is important to keep a couple of things in mind:

  • Not all scholarly/academic journals are peer-reviewed.
  • Not every article in a peer-reviewed journal is a primary research article or even a secondary research article. These journals often contain book/product reviews, opinion pieces, advice for practitioners, literature reviews, et cetera.
  • Books take longer to publish and when you need current research/data this is a consideration. It can also be hard to determine what, if any type of peer-review process a book has gone through.
  • Dissertations are by their very nature peer-reviewed, especially at the doctoral level, but can be hard to access as they are often only available at the university where the dissertation was written.
  • In Education, district/state/national reports may be peer-reviewed, but like with books this can be hard to determine.

Research Databases are a great tool for finding and accessing primary research articles published in scholarly/academic, peer-reviewed journals. In the field of Education our library provides access to ERIC, Education Source, Proquest Education Database and Academic Search Ultimate. Each of these databases have search functions to help you narrow your results list down to scholarly/academic, peer-reviewed journals.

Depending on your topic and research question you may need to explore research databases in other disciplines as well. Here are two examples:

  • Does gender impact bullying in middle school? In edition to Education databases I might want to also look at psychology (from the aspect of gender and behavior) and criminal justice databases (from the perspective that bullying can be a crime and looking at gender/age based statistics)
  • What impact does arts therapy have on children with behavioral issues in the classroom? In edition to Education databases I might want to also look at psychology and medical databases (from the aspect of children with behavioral issues and arts therapy methods)