Secondary research is the analysis, summary or synthesis of already existing published research. Instead of collecting original data, as in primary research, secondary research involves data or the results of data analyses already collected.
It is generally published in books, handbooks, textbooks, articles, encyclopedias, websites, magazines, literature reviews and meta-analyses. These are usually referred to as secondary sources.
Secondary research is a good place to start when wanting to acquire a broad view of a research area. It is usually easier to understand and may not require advanced training in research design and statistics.
Secondary Research Examples
1. Literature Review
A literature review summarizes, reviews, and critiques the existing published literature on a topic.
Literature reviews are considered secondary research because it is a collection and analysis of the existing literature rather than generating new data for the study.
They hold value for academic studies because they enable us to take stock of the existing knowledge in a field, evaluate it, and identify flaws or gaps in the existing literature. As a result, they’re almost universally used by academics prior to conducting primary research.
Example 1: Workplace stress in nursing: a literature review
Citation: McVicar, A. (2003). Workplace stress in nursing: a literature review. Journal of advanced nursing, 44(6), 633-642.
Summary: This study conducted a systematic analysis of literature on the causes of stress for nurses in the workplace. The study explored the literature published between 2000 and 2014. The authors found that the literature identifies several main causes of stress for nurses: professional relationships with doctors and staff, communication difficulties with patients and their families, the stress of emergency cases, overwork, lack of staff, and lack of support from the institutions. They conclude that understanding these stress factors can help improve the healthcare system and make it better for both nurses and patients.
Example 2: The impact of shiftwork on health: a literature review
Citation: Matheson, A., O’Brien, L., & Reid, J. A. (2014). The impact of shiftwork on health: a literature review. Journal of Clinical Nursing, 23(23-24), 3309-3320.
In this literature review, 118 studies were analyzed to examine the impact of shift work on nurses’ health. The findings were organized into three main themes: physical health, psychosocial health, and sleep. The majority of shift work research has primarily focused on these themes, but there is a lack of studies that explore the personal experiences of shift workers and how they navigate the effects of shift work on their daily lives. Consequently, it remains challenging to determine how individuals manage their shift work schedules. They found that, while shift work is an inevitable aspect of the nursing profession, there is limited research specifically targeting nurses and the implications for their self-care.
Example 3: Social media and entrepreneurship research: A literature review
Citation: Olanrewaju, A. S. T., Hossain, M. A., Whiteside, N., & Mercieca, P. (2020). Social media and entrepreneurship research: A literature review. International Journal of Information Management, 50, 90-110.
In this literature review, 118 studies were analyzed to examine the impact of shift work on nurses’ health. The findings were organized into three main themes: physical health, social health, and sleep. The majority of shift work research has primarily focused on these themes, but there is a lack of studies that explore the personal experiences of shift workers and how they navigate the effects of shift work on their daily lives. Consequently, it remains challenging to determine how individuals manage their shift work schedules. They found that, while shift work is an inevitable aspect of the nursing profession, there is limited research specifically targeting nurses and the implications for their self-care.
Example 4: Adoption of electric vehicle: A literature review and prospects for sustainability
Citation: Kumar, R. R., & Alok, K. (2020). Adoption of electric vehicle: A literature review and prospects for sustainability. Journal of Cleaner Production, 253, 119911.
This study is a literature review that aims to synthesize and integrate findings from existing research on electric vehicles. By reviewing 239 articles from top journals, the study identifies key factors that influence electric vehicle adoption. Themes identified included: availability of charging infrastructure and total cost of ownership. The authors propose that this analysis can provide valuable insights for future improvements in electric mobility.
Example 5: Towards an understanding of social media use in the classroom: a literature review
Citation: Van Den Beemt, A., Thurlings, M., & Willems, M. (2020). Towards an understanding of social media use in the classroom: a literature review. Technology, Pedagogy and Education, 29(1), 35-55.
This study examines how social media can be used in education and the challenges teachers face in balancing its potential benefits with potential distractions. The review analyzes 271 research papers. They find that ambiguous results and poor study quality plague the literature. However, they identify several factors affecting the success of social media in the classroom, including: school culture, attitudes towards social media, and learning goals. The study’s value is that it organizes findings from a large corpus of existing research to help understand the topic more comprehensively.
Meta-analyses are similar to literature reviews, but are at a larger scale and tend to involve the quantitative synthesis of data from multiple studies to identify trends and derive estimates of overall effect sizes.
For example, while a literature review might be a qualitative assessment of trends in the literature, a meta analysis would be a quantitative assessment, using statistical methods, of studies that meet specific inclusion criteria that can be directly compared and contrasted.
Often, meta-analysis aim to identify whether the existing data can provide an authoritative account for a hypothesis and whether it’s confirmed across the body of literature.
Example 6: Cholesterol and Alzheimer’s Disease Risk: A Meta-Meta-Analysis
Citation: Sáiz-Vazquez, O., Puente-Martínez, A., Ubillos-Landa, S., Pacheco-Bonrostro, J., & Santabárbara, J. (2020). Cholesterol and Alzheimer’s disease risk: a meta-meta-analysis. Brain sciences, 10(6), 386.
This study examines the relationship between cholesterol and Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Researchers conducted a systematic search of meta-analyses and reviewed several databases, collecting 100 primary studies and five meta-analyses to analyze the connection between cholesterol and Alzheimer’s disease. They find that the literature compellingly demonstrates that low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C) levels significantly influence the development of Alzheimer’s disease, but high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL-C), total cholesterol (TC), and triglycerides (TG) levels do not show significant effects. This is an example of secondary research because it compiles and analyzes data from multiple existing studies and meta-analyses rather than collecting new, original data.
Example 7: The power of feedback revisited: A meta-analysis of educational feedback research
Citation: Wisniewski, B., Zierer, K., & Hattie, J. (2020). The power of feedback revisited: A meta-analysis of educational feedback research. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 3087.
This meta-analysis examines 435 empirical studies research on the effects of feedback on student learning. They use a random-effects model to ascertain whether there is a clear effect size across the literature. The authors find that feedback tends to impact cognitive and motor skill outcomes but has less of an effect on motivational and behavioral outcomes. A key (albeit somewhat obvious) finding was that the manner in which the feedback is provided is a key factor in whether the feedback is effective.
Example 8: How Much Does Education Improve Intelligence? A Meta-Analysis
Citation: Ritchie, S. J., & Tucker-Drob, E. M. (2018). How much does education improve intelligence? A meta-analysis. Psychological science, 29(8), 1358-1369.
This study investigates the relationship between years of education and intelligence test scores. The researchers analyzed three types of quasiexperimental studies involving over 600,000 participants to understand if longer education increases intelligence or if more intelligent students simply complete more education. They found that an additional year of education consistently increased cognitive abilities by 1 to 5 IQ points across all broad categories of cognitive ability. The effects persisted throughout the participants’ lives, suggesting that education is an effective way to raise intelligence. This study is an example of secondary research because it compiles and analyzes data from multiple existing studies rather than gathering new, original data.
Example 9: A meta-analysis of factors related to recycling
Citation: Geiger, J. L., Steg, L., Van Der Werff, E., & Ünal, A. B. (2019). A meta-analysis of factors related to recycling. Journal of environmental psychology, 64, 78-97.
This study aims to identify key factors influencing recycling behavior across different studies. The researchers conducted a random-effects meta-analysis on 91 studies focusing on individual and household recycling. They found that both individual factors (such as recycling self-identity and personal norms) and contextual factors (like having a bin at home and owning a house) impacted recycling behavior. The analysis also revealed that individual and contextual factors better predicted the intention to recycle rather than the actual recycling behavior. The study offers theoretical and practical implications and suggests that future research should examine the effects of contextual factors and the interplay between individual and contextual factors.
Example 10: Stress management interventions for police officers and recruits
Citation: Patterson, G. T., Chung, I. W., & Swan, P. W. (2014). Stress management interventions for police officers and recruits: A meta-analysis. Journal of experimental criminology, 10, 487-513.
The meta-analysis systematically reviews randomized controlled trials and quasi-experimental studies that explore the effects of stress management interventions on outcomes among police officers. It looked at 12 primary studies published between 1984 and 2008. Across the studies, there were a total of 906 participants. Interestingly, it found that the interventions were not effective. Here, we can see how secondary research is valuable sometimes for showing there is no clear trend or consensus in existing literature. The conclusions suggest a need for further research to develop and implement more effective interventions addressing specific stressors and using randomized controlled trials.
Academic textbooks tend not to present new research. Rather, they present key academic information in ways that are accessible to university students and academics.
As a result, we can consider textbooks to be secondary rather than primary research. They’re collections of information and research produced by other people, then re-packaged for a specific audience.
Textbooks tend to be written by experts in a topic. However, unlike literature reviews and meta-analyses, they are not necessarily systematic in nature and are not designed to progress current knowledge through identifying gaps, weaknesses, and strengths in the existing literature.
Example 11: Psychology for the Third Millennium: Integrating Cultural and Neuroscience Perspectives
This textbook aims to bridge the gap between two distinct domains in psychology: Qualitative and Cultural Psychology, which focuses on managing meaning and norms, and Neuropsychology and Neuroscience, which studies brain processes. The authors believe that by combining these areas, a more comprehensive general psychology can be achieved, which unites the biological and cultural aspects of human life. This textbook is considered a secondary source because it synthesizes and integrates information from various primary research studies, theories, and perspectives in the field of psychology.
Example 12: Cultural Sociology: An Introduction
Citation: Bennett, A., Back, L., Edles, L. D., Gibson, M., Inglis, D., Jacobs, R., & Woodward, I. (2012). Cultural sociology: an introduction. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
This student textbook introduces cultural sociology and proposes that it is a valid model for sociological thinking and research. It gathers together existing knowledge within the field to prevent an overview of major sociological themes and empirical approaches utilized within cultural sociological research. It does not present new research, but rather packages existing knowledge in sociology and makes it understandable for undergraduate students.
Example 13: A Textbook of Community Nursing
Citation: Chilton, S., & Bain, H. (Eds.). (2017). A textbook of community nursing. New York: Routledge.
This textbook presents an evidence-based introduction to professional topics in nursing. In other words, it gathers evidence from other research and presents it to students. It covers areas such as care approaches, public health, eHealth, therapeutic relationships, and mental health. Like many textbooks, it brings together its own secondary research with user-friendly elements like exercises, activities, and hypothetical case studies in each chapter.
4. White Papers
White papers are typically produced within businesses and government departments rather than academic research environments.
Generally, a white paper will focus on a specific topic of concern to the institution in order to present a state of the current situation as well as opportunities that could be pursued for change, improvement, or profit generation in the future.
Unlike a literature review, a white paper generally doesn’t follow standards of academic rigor and may be presented with a bias toward, or focus on, a company or institution’s mission and values.
Example 14: Future of Mobility White Paper
Citation: Shaheen, S., Totte, H., & Stocker, A. (2018). Future of Mobility White Paper. UC Berkeley: Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Berkeley
This white paper explores the how transportation is changing due to concerns over climate change, equity of access to transit, and rapid technological advances (such as shared mobility and automation). The authors aggregate current information and research on key trends, emerging technologies/services, impacts on California’s transportation ecosystem, and future growth projections by reviewing state agency publications, peer-reviewed articles, and forecast reports from various sources. This white paper is an example of secondary research because it synthesizes and integrates information from multiple primary research sources, expert interviews, and input from an advisory committee of local and state transportation agencies.
Example 15: White Paper Concerning Philosophy of Education and Environment
Citation: Humphreys, C., Blenkinsop, S. White Paper Concerning Philosophy of Education and Environment. Stud Philos Educ 36(1): 243–264.
This white paper acknowledges the increasing significance of climate change, environmental degradation, and our relationship with nature, and the need for philosophers of education and global citizens to respond. The paper examines five key journals in the philosophy of education to identify the scope and content of current environmental discussions. By organizing and summarizing the located articles, it assesses the possibilities and limitations of these discussions within the philosophy of education community. This white paper is an example of secondary research because it synthesizes and integrates information from multiple primary research sources, specifically articles from the key journals in the field, to analyze the current state of environmental discussions.
5. Academic Essays
Students’ academic essays tend to present secondary rather than primary research. The student is expected to study current literature on a topic and use it to present a thesis statement.
Academic essays tend to require rigorous standards of analysis, critique, and evaluation, but do not require systematic investigation of a topic like you would expect in a literature review.
In an essay, a student may identify the most relevant or important data from a field of research in order to demonstrate their knowledge of a field of study. They may also, after demonstrating sufficient knowledge and understanding, present a thesis statement about the issue.
Secondary research involves data that has already been collected. The published research might be reviewed, included in a meta-analysis, or subjected to a re-analysis.
These findings might be published in a peer-reviewed journal or handbook, become the foundation of a book for public consumption, or presented in a more narrative form for a popular website or magazine.
Sources for secondary research can range from scientific journals to government databases and archived data accumulated by research institutes.
University students might engage in secondary research to become familiar with an area of research. That might help spark an intriguing hypothesis for a research project of master’s thesis.
Secondary research can yield new insights into human behavior, or confirm existing conceptualizations of psychological constructs.