55 Primary and Secondary Research

Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, the student will be able to:

  1. Explain the difference between primary and secondary sources.
  2. Distinguish between reliable and unreliable information on the Internet.
  3. Access and find reliable information on the Internet.
  4. Explain basic terminology needed for Internet research.
  5. Construct a short survey usable for analyzing an audience.
  6. Conduct short interviews for information for speeches.
  7. Recognize information that should be cited.

Primary and Secondary Research

As noted in Chapters 1 and 3, credibility as a speaker is one of your main concerns. Among many voices, you must prove that yours is worth attention. You can do this by

  • using engaging narratives,
  • having energetic delivery, and
  • meeting the needs of your audience.

However, a foundational way is to offer support for the points you make in your speech, which you can do by providing evidence from other sources. You will find these resources by doing research.

You have access to many sources of information: books in print or electronic format, Internet webpages, scholarly journal articles in databases, and information from direct, primary sources through surveys and interviews. With so many sources, information literacy is a vital skill for researchers.

The term “research” is a broad one, for which the Merriam-Webster Dictionary (2018) offers three basic definitions. The second one it lists is:

studious inquiry or examination; especially: investigation or experimentation aimed at the discovery and interpretation of facts, revision of accepted theories or laws in the light of new facts, or practical application of such new or revised theories or laws.

The third definition in Merriam-Webster is more applicable for this chapter: “the collecting of information about a particular subject.”

The first definition above refers to primary research, which depends on primary sources. The term “primary source” means “those sources that provide first-hand accounts of the events, practices or conditions” being researched (“What are Primary Sources,” 2006). It is research that goes directly to the source (Futteross, 2018).

For example, if a psychology researcher wanted to understand the stressors on military personnel in Afghanistan, he or she could interview them personally, read blog posts or other writings of the service personnel, or give them a survey with clear questions about their experiences and concerns. The information gathered in each of these examples would come straight from the “source.”

Another example would be an education professor who wants to understand if texting in class affects student learning. She sets up an experiment with similar students in two classes taught exactly the same way. One class has to follow a strict policy of no texting and the other has no policy about texting. At the end of the semester she compares test scores. Going into the experiment, she formulates a hypothesis, or prediction, of which class will do better on tests. Her results will support the hypothesis or not.

Journalists, historians, biologists, chemists, psychologists, sociologists, and others conduct primary research, which is part of achieving a doctorate in one’s field and adding to what is called “the knowledge base.” For your speeches, you might use primary sources as well. Let’s say you want to do a persuasive speech to convince your classmates to wear their seatbelts. Some of the basic information you might need to do this is:

  • how many people in the class don’t wear seatbelts regularly, and
  • why they choose not to.

You could conduct primary research and directly ask your classmates if they wear their seatbelts and, if not, why not. This way, you are getting information directly from a primary source. (Later in this chapter we will look at some ways you could do this efficiently.)

It is possible that you will access published primary sources in your research for this speech class (and you will definitely do so as you progress in your discipline). Additionally, and more commonly, you will use secondary sources, which are articles, books, and websites that are compilations or interpretations of the primary sources. It may sound from this description that secondary sources are inferior to primary sources. That is not the case. Poorly done primary research is not better than quality secondary sources. Which one you use depends on our purpose, topic, audience, and context. If you engage in undergraduate research in your junior or senior year and present at a conference, you will be expected have some primary research. However, for most of your college work, you will be looking for reliable secondary sources.

One way to assess the quality of a secondary source is to look at its references or bibliography. A reliable source will cite other sources to support its claims. Likewise, a well-researched speech will provide support for its argument by using evidence obtained from reliable sources. In this section we will examine research on the Internet and how you can conduct your own primary research. The last section will show how to use the Roberts Library resources at Dalton State College. If you are not a student at Dalton State, your college’s library is probably very similar to Dalton State’s, so you should read that section for information on different types of sources, etc. Your instructor will probably provide instruction to your college’s library system.


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