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Step 4: Conducting Primary Research

Research forms the core of academic writing and can make or break your paper. At the college level, writers must support their claims through tailored evidence that support their thesis. Research skills can take time and practice to develop, but don’t be intimidated. This guide will cover the basics of conducting primary research.

What is Primary Research?

The concept of primary research is quite simple. Primary research involves the collection of original data that addresses a specific research question. Distinguishing between primary and secondary research can be a point of confusion for beginning researchers. However, a few pointers highlight they key differences between these two forms of research. Secondary research reiterates information that has already been collected and published for others to reference. Examples of secondary research sources include peer-reviewed journals, trade publications and magazines, and books. 

In contrast, primary research requires the researcher to collect data that is not readily accessible. If you have ever conducted an interview, written down an observation, or distributed a questionnaire, you have conducted primary research. In some cases, primary research might involve the collection of data that is already published and made available for the public. For example, a criminal justice project might call for the collection of data from the Uniform Crime Report to describe crime trends. Performing original analysis on pre-existing data also qualifies as primary research.

When to Conduct Primary Research

Though primary research can strengthen any essay, it is not required in all cases. Successful writers know when it is and isn’t important to conduct their own research. Here are some quick and fast tips for deciding when to opt for primary research:

When to Conduct Primary Research

1. Your professor requires it

2. You are writing for an advanced course

3. The essay subject requires it

4. There is little existing research

5: To dispute pre-existing research

6. You have a unique opportunity to conduct research  

Your Professor Requires It

In many cases, your professor will require primary research for a specific paper or project. Both physical and social science professors often require primary research in under-division courses to help students get a feel for primary research techniques. The good news is that professors usually announce when they require you to conduct primary research so that there isn’t any room for confusion. Still, it is always a good idea to carefully check the research requirements for all course assignments to determine the expectations of your professor.

You Are Writing for an Advanced Course

While under-division courses rarely require students to gather their own research, upper-division or graduate-level courses frequently require primary research. Capstone or thesis courses typically require you to conduct your own research to make a unique contribution to your field subject. When you enroll in these types of courses, you can expect to conduct primary research for your assignments. 

The Essay Subject Calls for It

If you select a subject that is locally based or uncommon, it might call for original research. For example, an essay on the opinions regarding the construction of a new student union would require you to personally survey the student body, faculty, or administrators. If you want to assess employee attitudes at a local company, you will need to conduct your own interviews to obtain the pertinent data. 

Little Pre-existing Research Exists

Even when your topic is unoriginal, you might find that little pre-existing research exists on your topic. Because the process of preparing and publishing articles for scholarly journals can be lengthy, it might take time for the academic research community to catch up on your area of interest. For example, research on a new or emerging industry or business might be scarce. If your search for research comes up dry, you will need to conduct your own investigation by gathering industry data or interviewing business leaders. 

To Dispute Pre-existing Research

Disputing the consensus of researchers in your field can be a challenging yet rewarding task. Writers often conduct primary research simply to dispute the conclusion of a previous study or challenge a consensus in their discipline. Two approaches will help you invalidate pre-existing research. First, you can duplicate a pre-existing study and perform it yourself in anticipation of obtaining different results from the original study. Second, you can design a study that tests the same research question through new methods. If your research yields contrasting conclusion, you can cast doubt on previously accepted beliefs that were supported from the previous research.

You Have a Unique Opportunity to Conduct Research

Unique research opportunities exist all around us. Is your uncle the CEO of a Fortune500 company? Does your roommate know the governor of Montana? You can use these connections to obtain interviews, administer questionnaires, or make observations for your essay. Personal connections provide the opportunity to gain access to information that broadens your understanding of your research topic. 

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While these guidelines will help assess when primary research might be appropriate, they are not the only justifications for conducting original research. When in doubt, a professor or academic tutor can advise on the best research methods for a particular project. 

Types of Primary Research  

Researchers have a countless number of tools and methods at their disposal when they are conducting primary research. Fortunately there are only four main types of primary research that the majority of students need to know about. The following primary research methods can meet almost any research need. 

Major Types of Primary Research

    • Interviews and Observations
    • Surveys
    • Data Analysis  



Interviews are conducted by holding in-person, telephone, or email conversations with the people or group of people you wish to study. During an interview, the researcher asks a series of questions to the interview participants and documents the answers.


Surveys are conducted by distributing questionnaires to a large group of respondents. There are two main types of survey questions: open ended and close ended. Open-ended questions are questions that solicit a written response from the survey respondent. This type of survey question is useful for assessing a study participant’s true opinions or feelings on a given topic. Close-ended questions come in the form of yes or no questions and scales that ask participants to assign ranks to different response choices. This type of survey question is valuable for obtaining numeric data that can be used to compile statistical evidence.


Researchers make observations when they visually examine a person, event, or place and take notes on the details they witness. Observations allow the researcher to obtain information that subjects of a study might lack the objectivity to provide. 

Data Analysis

Data analysis involves the organization of data based upon criteria that is established by the researcher. This type of research is especially useful for identifying trends to describe a certain phenomenon. For example, researcher who wants to determine whether robberies are more likely to occur at night or during the day might look to crime report figures to conduct a data analysis. 

Writers are in good shape if they are adept at any one of these types of primary research tools. The majority of research designs will use one or more of these research methods.  

Choosing the Right Primary Research Method

Nothing is worse than conducting research and collecting the data, only to learn that your research method didn’t satisfactorily address your research topic. In addition to understanding the different types of primary research, it is equally important to know when it is beneficial to conduct interviews, surveys, observations, or data analysis. Here is a look at the advantages and disadvantages of each primary research method.

Advantages of Interviews

Interviews are beneficial for obtaining information, perspectives, or opinions on a research topic. Because interview questions are open ended, participants are free to fully express their answers to the interview question and provide detailed answers. 

Disadvantages of Interviews

The downside of interviews is that they can be time consuming. It can take anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours to interview each study participant. Because interview questions are hard to quantify, this form of research is undesirable for research topics that require you to identify trends in data.

Advantages of Surveys

Surveys allow researchers to obtain feedback from a large number of people in a short period of time. One questionnaire can be distributed to thousands of participants and used to find meaningful trends from the responses.

Disadvantages of Surveys

Since surveys call for the opinions of research participants, the feedback they obtain can be subjective in nature. Even questions asking for concrete information, such as the number of times the survey taker purchased a certain product in a month, relies upon the accuracy of the respondent. Without careful controls, survey responses can be very unreliable as evidence.

Advantages of Observations

Observations allow researchers to obtain objectivity that might not be lacking from interviews and surveys. For example, a researcher might choose to observe a family at the dinner table and record their conversations. By directly observing the family, the researcher does not have to rely upon the correct recollection of the research participants to access accurate information. 

Disadvantages of Observations

Making observations can be the most time-consuming method of conducting research. Because the researcher must be present to observe the event, a significant amount of time must be allotted to watching the research subject and recording the results.  

Advantages of Data Analysis

Data analysis enables researchers to organize and make sense of large amounts of information. Data collected and analyzed from credible sources can significantly boost the authority of any research project. This method of research is the most beneficial method of obtaining an objective evaluation of trends and patterns. 

Disadvantages of Data Analysis

Drawing meaningful conclusions from data might require an advanced background in statistics. To eliminate errors or misinterpretations of the data, the researcher must have a keen understanding of data analysis techniques.

Getting Started 

Getting Started

Step 1: Identify your research topic

Step 2: Draft a research question to be answered through your research.

Step 3: Determine which research methods will answer your question.

Step 4: Design a plan for carrying out your selected research method.

Step 5: Determine how you will collect and analyze your data.

Step 6: Conduct your research! 

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