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Research Methods

Secondary Research

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What is Secondary Research?

Secondary research

Secondary research uses research and data that has already been carried out. It is sometimes referred to as desk research. It is a good starting point for any type of research as it enables you to analyse what research has already been undertaken and identify any gaps. 

You may only need to carry out secondary research for your assessment or you may need to use secondary research as a starting point, before undertaking your own primary research.

Searching for both primary and secondary sources can help to ensure that you are up to date with what research has already been carried out in your area of interest and to identify the key researchers in the field.

"Secondary sources are the books, articles, papers and similar materials written or produced by others that help you to form your background understanding of the subject. You would use these to find out about experts’ findings, analyses or perspectives on the issue and decide whether to draw upon these explicitly in your research." (Cottrell, 2014, p. 123).

Examples of secondary research sources include:

  • books
  • journal articles
  • official statistics, such as government reports or organisations which have collected and published data

Primary research involves gathering data which has not been collected before. Methods to collect it can include interviews, focus groups, controlled trials and case studies. Secondary research often comments on and analyses this primary research.

Gopalakrishnan and Ganeshkumar (2013, p. 10) explain the difference between primary and secondary research:

"Primary research is collecting data directly from patients or population, while secondary research is the analysis of data already collected through primary research. A review is an article that summarizes a number of primary studies and may draw conclusions on the topic of interest which can be traditional (unsystematic) or systematic".

Secondary Data

As secondary data has already been collected by someone else for their research purposes, it may not cover all of the areas of interest for your research topic. This research will need to be analysed alongside other research sources and data in the same subject area in order to confirm, dispute or discuss the findings in a wider context.

"Secondary source data, as the name infers, provides second-hand information. The data come ‘pre-packaged’, their form and content reflecting the fact that they have been produced by someone other than the researcher and will not have been produced specifically for the purpose of the research project. The data, none the less, will have some relevance for the research in terms of the information they contain, and the task for the researcher is to extract that information and re-use it in the context of his/her own research project." (Denscombe, 2021, p. 268)

In the video below Dr. Benedict Wheeler (Senior Research Fellow at the European Center for Environment and Human Health at the University of Exeter Medical School) discusses secondary data analysis. Secondary data was used for his research on how the environment affects health and well-being and utilising this secondary data gave access to a larger data set.

As with all research, an important part of the process is to critically evaluate any sources you use. There are tools to help with this in the Being Critical section of the guide.

Louise Corti, from the UK Data Archive, discusses using secondary data in the video below. The importance of evaluating secondary research is discussed - this is to ensure the data is appropriate for your research and to investigate how the data was collected.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Secondary Research

There are advantages and disadvantages to secondary research:


  • Usually low cost
  • Easily accessible
  • Provides background information to clarify / refine research areas
  • Increases breadth of knowledge
  • Shows different examples of research methods
  • Can highlight gaps in the research and potentially outline areas of difficulty
  • Can incorporate a wide range of data
  • Allows you to identify opposing views and supporting arguments for your research topic
  • Highlights the key researchers and work which is being undertaken within the subject area
  • Helps to put your research topic into perspective


  • Can be out of date
  • Might be unreliable if it is not clear where or how the research has been collected - remember to think critically
  • May not be applicable to your specific research question as the aims will have had a different focus

Secondary Research in Literature Reviews

Literature reviews 

Secondary research for your major project may take the form of a literature review. This is where you will outline the main research which has already been written on your topic. This might include theories and concepts connected with your topic and it should also look to see if there are any gaps in the research.

As the criteria and guidance will differ for each School, it is important that you check the guidance which you have been given for your assessment. This may be in Blackboard and you can also check with your supervisor.

The videos below include some insights from academics regarding the importance of literature reviews.

Malcolm Williams, Professor and Director of the Cardiff School of Social Sciences, discusses how to build upon previous research by conducting a thorough literature review. Professor Geoff Payne discusses research design and how the literature review can help determine what research methods to use as well as help to further plan your project.
Link to a video on how to build upon previous research by conducting a thorough literature review. Link to a video on Research Design

Secondary Research - Going Beyond Literature Reviews

Secondary research which goes beyond literature reviews

For some dissertations/major projects there might only be a literature review (discussed above). For others there could be a literature review followed by primary research and for others the literature review might be followed by further secondary research. 

You may be asked to write a literature review which will form a background chapter to give context to your project and provide the necessary history for the research topic. However, you may then also be expected to produce the rest of your project using additional secondary research methods, which will need to produce results and findings which are distinct from the background chapter to avoid repetition.

Remember, as the criteria and guidance will differ for each School, it is important that you check the guidance which you have been given for your assessment. This may be in Blackboard and you can also check with your supervisor.

Although this type of secondary research will go beyond a literature review, it will still rely on research which has already been undertaken. And, "just as in primary research, secondary research designs can be either quantitative, qualitative, or a mixture of both strategies of inquiry" (Manu and Akotia, 2021, p. 4).

Your secondary research may use the literature review to focus on a specific theme, which is then discussed further in the main project. Or it may use an alternative approach. Some examples are included below. Remember to speak with your supervisor if you are struggling to define these areas.

Some approaches of how to conduct secondary research include:

  • Systematic literature reviews:
    • A systematic review is a structured literature review that involves identifying all of the relevant primary research using a rigorous search strategy to answer a focused research question.
    • This involves comprehensive searching which is used to identify themes or concepts across a number of relevant studies. 
    • The review will assess the quality of the research and provide a summary and synthesis of all relevant available research on the topic.
    • The systematic review LibGuide goes into more detail about this process (The guide is aimed a PhD/Researcher students. However, students on other levels of study may find parts of the guide helpful too).
  • Scoping reviews:
    • Scoping reviews aim to identify and assess available research on a specific topic (which can include ongoing research). 
    • They are "particularly useful when a body of literature has not yet been comprehensively reviewed, or exhibits a complex or heterogeneous nature not amenable to a more precise systematic review of the evidence. While scoping reviews may be conducted to determine the value and probable scope of a full systematic review, they may also be undertaken as exercises in and of themselves to summarize and disseminate research findings, to identify research gaps, and to make recommendations for the future research." (Peters et al., 2015).
  • State-of-the-art review:
    • This is designed to summarise the current knowledge and provide priorities for future research.
    • "A state-of-the-art review will often highlight new ideas or gaps in research with no official quality assessment." (MacAdden, 2020).
  • Bibliometric review:
    • "Bibliometric analysis is a popular and rigorous method for exploring and analyzing large volumes of scientific data." (Donthu et al., 2021)
    • Quantitative methods and statistics are used to analyse the bibliographic data of published literature. This can be used to measure the impact of authors, publications, or topics within a subject area.
    • The bibliometric analysis often uses the data from a citation source such as Scopus or Web of Science.

  • Meta-analysis:
    • This is a technique used to combine the statistic results of prior quantitative studies in order to increase precision and validity.
    • "It goes beyond the parameters of a literature review, which assesses existing literature, to actually perform calculations based on the results collated, thereby coming up with new results" (Curtis and Curtis, 2011, p. 220)

(Adapted from: Grant and Booth, 2009, cited in Sarhan and Manu, 2021, p. 72)

  • Using Grounded Theory with secondary data:
    • Grounded Theory is used to create explanatory theory from data which has been collected.
    • "Grounded theory data analysis strategies can be used with different types of data, including secondary data." (Whiteside, Mills and McCalman, 2012)
    • This allows you to use a specific theory or theories which can then be applied to your chosen topic/research area.
  • Analysis of case studies:
    • You could focus on one case study which is analysed in depth, or you could examine more than one in order to compare and contrast the important aspects of your research question.
    • "Good case studies often begin with a predicament that is poorly comprehended and is inadequately explained or traditionally rationalised by numerous conflicting accounts. Therefore, the aim is to comprehend an existent problem and to use the acquired understandings to develop new theoretical outlooks or explanations." (Papachroni and Lochrie, 2015, p. 81)

Main Stages of Secondary Research

Main stages of secondary research for a dissertation/major project

In general, the main stages for conducting secondary research for your dissertation or major project will include:

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Choosing a research question:

  • You may be given a specific research topic or you may be asked to choose an area of interest for your research.
  • If you can choose a topic, make sure it is something you are interested in or enthusiastic about as you will be spending a lot of time on this piece of work. 
  • Before you confirm your topic, it is useful to also do a basic scoping search (in Discovery or Google Scholar) before you dedicate too much time to your research, to make sure there is adequate published research available in that area.
  • You will need to make sure your research topic/question is foucsed and not too broad.
Planning icon

Creating a plan:

  • Think about what type of research methods you want to use and which are most suited to your research question.
  • Research Methods could be quantitative, qualitative or mixed methods. You will need to justify which choice you make.
  • Identify the key authors and researchers in your subject area.
  • Look to see what has already been researched and if you can identify any gaps.
  • Choose and justify inclusion and exclusion criteria - what you want and don't want in your search results.
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Read and evaluate icon   

Reading and evaluating the research:

  • Read the relevant research resources you have found, ensuring you understand what is being discussed.
  • Evaluate the research you have chosen to include.
  • There is lots of online support for critical thinking, writing and appraisal:


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Writing it up:

Useful Resources

Click on the image below to access the reading list which includes resources used in this guide as well as some additional useful resources.

Link to online reading list of additional resources and further reading

Using material on this page