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Extended Essay: Step 12. Do the Research

A guide to the research and writing process required for students completing the IB Extended Essay.

Time to do the research!

Primary and Secondary Research: What's the Difference?

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, 1970 - Britannica ImageQuestPrimary and secondary research play different roles in the research process. What's the difference?

During the initial inquiry stage of your research, you're collecting information from a range of sources to help formulate your research question. This may involve talking to people as well as reading.  You should be trying to read as much as you can of what has already been written about your topic. This is called a “literature review” or “secondary research”.

Secondary sources may include:

  • printed works—books, journals, newspapers, magazines
  • Internet sources—websites, articles, journals and so on, available only online
  • other media sources—films, TV and radio programmes
  • any other published information containing ideas and information relating to your choice of topic
This secondary research can help you refine your research question and begin to answer it.

Then, it's time to formulate your research question and undertake further research to answer it. This may be further secondary research or your own primary research

When you carry out primary research you collect your own data. Taking into consideration your findings from the secondary research, you gather the additional information you have identified as required to help you answer your research question. 

Primary research techniques include:

  • setting up experiments
  • extracting information from original documents
  • interviewing experts
  • conducting formal surveys
  • gathering information by other methods from primary sources

Whether you're undertaking primary or secondary research, or a combination, reflection plays a key role in evaluating your findings and formulating a reasoned argument that answers the research question.


What exactly is the distinction between these two types of research, and when do we use the first and when the latter?  This clip is part of an 8 weeks free online course 'Introduction to Communication Science' given by the University of Amsterdam.

MOOC ICS. Primary and secondary research. 17 October 2013. YouTube, Accessed January 2017.

This video explains the characteristics of and differences between primary and secondary sources.

Imagine Easy Solutions. Primary & secondary sources. 18 February 2014. Vimeo, Accessed January 2017. 

Twelve-step Plan for Researching the Extended Essay - Step 12

12.  Carry out the research.  The material collected should be assembled in a logical order, linked to the structure of the essay and clearly focused on the research question posed.  Only then will you know that you have enough evidence for each stage of the argument so that you can proceed to the next.  

You should be prepared for things to occasionally go wrong.  Sometimes you may discover something later in the research that undermines what you thought had been established earlier.  If that happens, your research plan needs to be revised.


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