Secondary data refers to any research data that is not collected for the purpose of your own study, but is repurposed and reanalyzed within your study.
In Dissertation Research Methods: A Step-by-Step Guide, Philip Adu and Anthony Miles (2023) provide a succinct scholarly definition:
Secondary data is defined as data collected for a purpose other than the problem at hand, and secondary analysis is usually undertaken by researchers who did not conduct the primary data collection.
The most common times when we would use secondary data is in literature reviews and meta-analyses, where we collect, collate, compare, analyze, and synthesize other people’s data to identify research trends, allowing us to understand the landscape of research on a topic. This can help researchers to identify research gaps. (See more times we would conduct secondary research here).
Below is a list of common sources of secondary data.
Secondary Data Sources
1. Academic Journal Articles
Academic journal articles are scholarly papers published in academic journals. They usually report on original research, review existing literature, or present theoretical analyses in various academic fields.
When researchers use academic journal articles, they are accessing the data, analyses, or findings of other researchers. The original data collected and analyzed by the authors of these articles becomes secondary data when it is reused or reanalyzed by other researchers.
Typically, researchers will use academic journal articles as secondary data sources when they are used in literature reviews and meta-analyses.
In these situations, researchers will synthesize and analyze the findings of multiple studies to draw broader conclusions, identify trends, or discover research gaps in a specific field. This process allows them to build upon existing knowledge without conducting original data collection.
2. Government Publications
Government publications are a treasure trove of secondary data. These can include documents such as reports, policy papers, statistics, and research findings issued by government bodies or agencies.
These publications often contain data collected by government agencies for purposes such as policy development, monitoring, and administrative functions.
When this data is used by researchers for a different purpose than its original intent, it becomes secondary data.
For example, researchers might utilize government publications to gain insights into policy impacts, demographic trends, and socio-economic conditions.
Researchers rely on the credibility and the comprehensive nature of government data to support their findings or to compare with data from other sources, but should still always check the methodological rigor of those studies.
3. Industry Reports
Industry reports are research reports produced by market research firms, industry analysts, or trade associations. They tend to provide detailed analysis on industry trends, market size, competitive landscapes, and consumer behaviors.
These reports compile data gathered from various sources like surveys, market analysis, and business operations. This compiled data can be used as secondary data for researchers who did not participate in the original data collection process, but can leverage that data for their own studies.
Industry reports save researchers time and resources as they provide consolidated and analyzed data relevant to a specific industry.
4. Census Data
Census data refers to the information collected during national or regional censuses, which are typically conducted by governments at regular intervals (often every five or ten years).
This data generally includes demographic information such as age, gender, ethnicity, employment status, and housing conditions of the population.
While government use this data to inform public spending distributions and infrastructure planning, it’s analyzed by researchers for a range of other purposes, given the fact this is detailed and authoritative cross-sectional data on populations. This allows researchers to identify trends, make comparisons across regions and time periods, and support policy development and academic studies.
5. Historical Records
Historical records encompass a wide range of documents and materials that provide information about past events, people, and societies. These can include government records and curated artifacts.
When researchers use historical records, they are accessing data that was originally created or collected for purposes other than their current research inquiry. These records serve as secondary data because they are being repurposed to extract information and insights about the past.
Researchers in fields such as history, anthropology, and sociology use historical records to understand the context and events of the past.
These records are vital for reconstructing historical narratives, understanding cultural and societal changes, and analyzing historical events and trends.
Researchers rely on the authenticity and preservation of these records to conduct accurate and insightful historical analysis.
6. Public Opinion Polls
Public opinion polls are surveys conducted to gauge the public’s views, attitudes, or perceptions on various topics, ranging from politics and social issues to consumer products and services.
Public opinion polls become secondary data when researchers use the collected survey data for purposes other than the original intent of the poll. The initial purpose of these polls is to understand the current views of a specific population at a specific time.
Researchers use data from public opinion polls to analyze trends in public attitudes, understand societal changes, or validate hypotheses in social science research. This data is especially useful in fields like political science, marketing, and sociology.
7. Health Records
Health records consist of detailed information about an individual’s medical history, diagnoses, treatments, and health outcomes. These records are typically maintained by healthcare providers, hospitals, and clinics.
These records are considered secondary data when researchers use them for studies or analyses beyond their initial purpose of individual patient care and treatment. The data in these records was primarily collected for clinical purposes and patient management.
Researchers use health records to conduct epidemiological studies, public health research, and to analyze healthcare outcomes. These records provide invaluable data for understanding disease patterns, treatment effectiveness, and healthcare disparities. By analyzing this data, researchers can identify risk factors for diseases, assess the impact of healthcare interventions, and contribute to the development of evidence-based medical practices and policies.
However, accessing health records comes with a range of ethical issues, which are tightly regulated, which makes accessing this data difficult.
8. Trade and Economic Indexes
Trade and economic indexes are statistical measures that track economic performance, market trends, and trade activities. Examples include the Consumer Price Index (CPI), Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and various stock market indices.
While the data is not collected by academic reseasrchers, and not intended for them, researchers often use these indexes to study economic trends, evaluate policy impacts, and understand market behaviors.
In economics, finance, and business studies, these indexes are crucial for analyzing economic health, forecasting market trends, and making investment decisions.
By examining changes in these indexes, researchers can infer about inflation, economic growth, and consumer behavior, thus enabling informed decision-making in various economic and business contexts.
9. Policy Documents
Policy documents are formal records that outline the principles, plans, and objectives of specific policies implemented by governments, organizations, or institutions. These documents can include legislation, regulatory guidelines, strategic plans, and governmental directives.
Policy documents are considered secondary data when researchers use them to analyze or evaluate the impact and effectiveness of certain policies, analyze their ideological leanings via discourse analysis, and so on. Whenever the research is relied upon and used for purposes rather than for their original purpose of policy implementation and guidance, we consider them to be secondary data soureces.
By analyzing these documents, researchers can understand the rationale behind policies, their intended objectives, and their real-world impacts.
This analysis can inform future policy development, offer critiques of current policies, and contribute to the academic discourse on governance and policy-making.
10. Market Research Data
Market research data includes information gathered about consumers, market trends, competitors, and industry dynamics. This data is collected through methods like surveys, focus groups, sales analysis, and consumer feedback.
Market research data becomes secondary when researchers use it for purposes other than its initial marketing or business objectives. The primary purpose of collecting this data is to inform business strategies, product development, and marketing tactics.
Nevertheless, researchers utilize market research data to understand consumer behavior, analyze market trends, and study economic patterns.
By analyzing this secondary data, researchers can identify market opportunities, forecast consumer trends, and evaluate the effectiveness of marketing strategies.
This secondary use of market research data is crucial for businesses and policymakers to make informed decisions that align with consumer needs and market conditions.
Primary vs Secondary Data
Primary data is collected firsthand for specific research objectives, offering highly relevant and controlled information, but it can be time-consuming and expensive to gather.
Secondary data, on the other hand, is pre-existing data collected for other purposes, which is less costly and quicker to access but may not be as precisely tailored to the specific research needs and can vary in accuracy and relevance (Cameron & Price, 2009).
Here is a table comparing primary data to secondary data:
|Data collected firsthand for a specific research purpose or project (Cameron & Price, 2009).
|Data collected by someone else for a different purpose, used for new research (Adu & Miles, 2023).
|Purpose of Collection
|Directly addresses the research question or problem at hand (Wilson, 2021).
|Originally collected for different objectives, such as administrative, commercial, or general knowledge.
|Collected by the researcher through surveys, experiments, interviews, etc.
|Sourced from existing records like academic articles, government reports, industry publications (Cameron & Price, 2009).
|Questionnaire results, laboratory experiment data, fieldwork observations.
|Census data, historical records, previously published research.
|Directly relevant to the research question, providing specific insights (Cameron & Price, 2009; Wilson, 2021).
|Used to gain broader insights, supports or contradicts primary data findings (Wilson, 2021).
|Highly relevant and specific, allows control over the data quality (Kumar, 2010).
|Less costly and time-consuming, offers a wide range of perspectives (Cameron & Price, 2009).
|Time-consuming and costly to collect, requires more resources (Kumar, 2010).
|May not be precisely relevant, potential issues with data quality and accuracy.
Benefits and Limitations of Secondary Data
Secondary data can be attractive to research students because it helps them to skip the process of original data gathering (complete with complications like passing ethical review boards), allowing them to focus on data analysis and evaluation processes.
However, ideally, that’s not why you’d lean toward secondary data. Instead, a stronger reason to conduct a secondary research project is to help progress knowledge in a topic area by identifying trends in the area, and revealing previously unidentified insights that are burried in datasets (Rodriguez, Crossman & Bordia, 2021).
Below is a table comparing other possible benefits and limitations:
|Benefits of Secondary Data
|Limitations of Secondary Data
|Cost Effective: Secondary data offers a cost-effective solution for conducting research projects as it eliminates the need to conduct time-consuming and expensive primary data collection processes (Kumar, 2010; Wilson, 2021).
|Reliability Concerns: The accuracy and reliability of secondary data can be questionable, especially if the sources are not credible or the data collection methods were flawed (Kenett & Shmueli, 2016).
|Scope: It provides a broader scope of information, often encompassing large-scale data sets that individual researchers might not be able to compile independently (Kenett & Shmueli, 2016; Kumar, 2010). Similarly, it allows for longitudinal studies by providing access to historical data, enabling researchers to analyze trends and changes over time.
|Relevance Concerns: E.g. The data may be outdated, rendering it less relevant or useful for studies requiring current information and trends (Wilson, 2021).
|Identifying Research Gaps: Secondary data is instrumental in identifying gaps in existing research, guiding future primary data collection towards unexplored or under-researched areas (Wilson, 2021).
|Lack of Control: There is often a lack of control over the quality of secondary data, as the researcher did not oversee the data collection process (Rodriguez, Crossman & Bordia, 2021).
|Availability (Pro): The availability of secondary data allows for quicker initiation of research projects, as the data is already collected and often readily accessible (Rodriguez, Crossman & Bordia, 2021).
|Availability (Con): Researchers may face restrictions or limited access to secondary data, especially if it is proprietary or confidential in nature (e.g. health records).
|Exploratory: It can be particularly useful in exploratory research stages, offering insights and directions that inform more detailed primary research design (Wilson, 2021).
Adu, P., & Miles, D. A. (2023). Dissertation Research Methods: A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing Up Your Research in the Social Sciences. London: Taylor & Francis.
Cameron, S., & Price, D. (2009). Business Research Methods: A Practical Approach. Kogan Page.
Kenett, R. S., & Shmueli, G. (2016). Information Quality: The Potential of Data and Analytics to Generate Knowledge. Wiley.
Kumar, R. (2010). Research Methodology: A Step-by-Step Guide for Beginners. SAGE Publications.
Rodriguez, L., Crossman, J., & Bordia, S. (2021). An interdisciplinary approach to secondary qualitative data analysis: what why and how. In Handbook of qualitative research methodologies in workplace contexts (pp. 133-156). Edward Elgar Publishing.
Wilson, J. (2021). Understanding Research for Business Students: A Complete Student’s Guide. SAGE Publications.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]