Skip to Main Content

Research Basics

University level research is different from high-school research. This guide is a great starting point for learning about how to successfully conduct literature-based research, such as secondary research or a literature review.

When most people think of research, they usually think of what’s known as primary research or bench research—research that is conducted in a laboratory to discover new things. While this is an important part of research, it is only a small part. The majority of research consists of what's called secondary research. Research also breaks down along other lines besides just primary or secondary.

How Many Types of Research Are There?

In addition to primary/secondary, research is usually categorized as quantitative/qualitative, descriptive/analytical, or basic/applied. Because there are many subtle differences between how different disciplines conduct research, the following table provides only a brief summary of these concepts.


Quantitative vs. Qualitative Research



  • Based on numbers, data, facts
  • “Emphasis is placed on the collection of numerical data, the summary of those data and the drawing of inferences from the data”*

*Herbst, F. & Coldwell, D. (2004) Business Research, Juta and Co Ltd, p.15


  • Based on feelings, emotions, opinions, sounds and other non-numerical and unquantifiable elements

Descriptive vs. Analytical Research



  • Discovering or describing the state of affairs as they currently exist
  • No control over variables
  • Just the facts


  • Evaluation of available facts or data to make or support an argument or test an hypothesis
  • Uses data discovered or described in descriptive research

Basic vs. Applied Research



  • Conducted mainly for the enhancement of human knowledge
  • Often several disciplines work together
  • May not have any obvious or immediate application



  • Intended to solve specific practical problems
  • Applies known facts and information to create a new or optimal solution
  • May not enhance overall human knowledge but improves the human condition

Primary vs. Secondary Research



  • Expands human knowledge
  • Similar to analytical or basic research



  • Consolidates existing knowledge
  • Establishes what’s already known
  • Proves the need for primary research
  • Discovers methods and protocols for primary research
  • Similar to descriptive research

There are, however, many other types of research, often used only in certain narrow fields of research. Further complicating things, many of the types overlap, go by different names depending on the subject area, or are differentiated only by very subtle differences. For more detailed explanations of the types of research commonly used in your field, please consult references related to research in your specific subject area.

Because secondary research is so widely used, even by non-researchers, and because its practice is relatively consistent between disciplines, we will cover it in more detail on other pages of this guide.