What is primary research?

What is primary research?

There are just a couple of ways to collect data for research. One of them is through the collection of primary data. Research conducted with such data is often referred to as primary research. It is a form of research that involves a do-it-yourself approach on the part of the researcher.

This paper sheds more light on primary research, including the types of primary research, when to opt for primary research as well as its advantages and disadvantages.


In Primary research, the researcher gathers data directly or first-hand instead of relying on existing data from other sources. Because of this, the researcher is said to own the data. Like many other forms of research, the main aim of primary research is to identify a specific problem and solve it. Primary research requires that the researcher ventures out to collect data for his research. Because of this, it is also known as field research. Primary research is popular in education and business.

Sources of data for Primary Research


An interview is an interaction between two or more parties with the interviewer (the party asking the questions) aiming to obtain some information from the interviewee (the party answering the questions). The interviewer can meet face-to-face with the interviewees or interview them via telephone and/or the internet. To obtain the most optimal outcomes, the researcher must be a highly skillful interviewer. Previous experience in conducting interviews is an added advantage.

The researcher has three options on how to ask his interview questions – structure them, leave them unstructured or make them semi-structured. Structured interviews ask mainly close-ended questions while unstructured interviews ask mainly open-ended questions. Semi-structured interviews ask a combination of open and close-ended questions. Structured interviews are mainly used in quantitative research while unstructured interviews are used in qualitative research. Semi-structured interviews are also mainly used in qualitative research.

Focus groups

Like interviews, this is also qualitative in nature. A focus group is a small group (usually between 6 to 10 people) selected by a researcher for questioning. Questions follow an open-ended format, allowing subjects the freedom to answer questions in their own words and sentences. This unhindered freedom of expression can enrich the research in terms of the magnitude and scope of gathered data/information.

An example of a focus group is a researcher questioning a set of students to know the subjects they find most difficult.


Surveys are a popular and flexible data collection instrument all over the world. In survey research, data is collected through the use of psychometric tools and procedures such as questionnaires, rating scales, scorecards, tests, interviews checklists, and others. It can be a good method when you intend to study a large sample. A census is a type of survey that studies an entire target population. With the emergence of digital technologies, it is now possible to conduct surveys over the internet.

Though surveys are old instruments, their use for research (survey research) was introduced by 20th-century researchers in the field of sociology. It has grown in usage since then to cover several fields of education. For example, in areas like psychology, statistics, anthropology, economics, marketing political science, etc.


Here, the researcher carefully monitors (observes) the subjects of interest records his observations. The main objective is to use the observations to arrive at conclusions about the subjects. Raymond Gold identifies four types of observation:

  • Complete Observer method
  • Observer as Participant method
  • Participant as Observer method
  • Complete Participant method

Observation can also be structured or unstructured in nature. A lot of instruments can be used when making observations. For example, a researcher interested in measuring weights may use a weighing scale while another researcher interested in measuring temperature can use a thermometer.

When to undertake primary research

The decision on whether to conduct primary research rests on the nature of the research. The nature of the research will inform the choice of research type. For example, if the researcher feels it will be best to collect data directly from a population sample instead of using already existing data, then they should opt for primary research.  

Advantages of primary research

Data ownership and control

In Primary research, the research personally selects and administers the data collection instrument and is said to own the data. This not only gives him significant control over all the procedures involved but also helps him determine the most optimal strategies for collecting, processing, and analyzing the data to obtain valid and reliable outcomes.  

Helps to create secondary data

What is often regarded as secondary data was once primary data collected by a researcher (or a group of researchers). Hence, all secondary data are primary to the researchers who generated them.

Generates current data

Data gathered for primary research is usually current. This is because data collection often commences around the same period as the other phases of the entire research. Use of current data helps to locate the research findings in a contemporary context. This can help when recommending possible solutions for the problem.


The personal involvement of the researcher helps to ensure the accuracy of collected data. This is unlike secondary data which the researcher played no part in collecting. Moreover, the flexible nature of collecting primary data allows the researcher to collect the most suitable data for the subject matter under investigation. However, the researcher must ensure that his data collection techniques are scientific and not biased.

Disadvantages of Primary Research 

Data can be costly to collect

Fieldwork can be quite expensive, unlike secondary research where the researcher uses data that has already been gathered by other sources. For instance, survey questionnaires can be costly to construct and administer, especially if the sample size and/or geographic location is large.

Can consume time and energy

Unlike secondary research which is conducted with already made data, primary research data collection can be a lengthy and tedious process. Hence, it may not be suitable when quick solutions are needed due to the relatively slow process of data collection. Processing the collected data can also take more time than in secondary research.

Limited in scope

Primary research is not ideal for some kinds of investigations. For instance, a researcher intending to measure important economic indices such as GDP, Inflation rate, unemployment rate, per capita income, etc cannot use primary research. This is because data on such variables are usually time-series secondary data produced mostly by government agencies.

Bias and subjectivity

There is always a probability for bias on the part of both the researcher and the subjects. For example, the researcher may ask questions designed to suit his preferences rather than the research objectives. Also, the subjects may not always provide the appropriate answers to certain questions and can even skip answering some questions. Moreover, subjects under observation may purposely exhibit artificial behavior that seeks to impress the researcher.


Primary research is an important type of research all over the world. It involves the personal collection of new or original data by the researcher through fieldwork. Despite some disadvantages such as being expensive and time/energy consuming, it remains popular in both the academic and business communities, among others.

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