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Understanding the value of secondary research data

smiling woman in black top with dark hair that is pulled back
Health Specialist,
Division of Neuroscience (DN)
Dr. Karyn Onyeneho
Division of Neuroscience (DN)

“Reduce, reuse, recycle” isn’t just a good motto for preserving the environment, it’s also a smart scientific principle, thanks to the value of secondary research.

Secondary research uses existing data or specimens initially collected for purposes other than the planned (or primary) research. For example, the same specimens originally collected for a clinical trial could also be used in secondary genomic research. Secondary research maximizes the usefulness of data and unique specimens while minimizing risk to study volunteers since no new procedures are needed.

Through previous blogs, NIA provided updates and tips on the NIH Data Management and Sharing (DMS) Policy. That same policy also emphasizes the importance of sharing data gleaned from secondary research. It requires investigators, including those conducting secondary research, to describe the type of scientific data they plan to generate, and encourages good data sharing practices when performing secondary research. NIA is actively supporting secondary research through our recent Notice of Special Interest on the topic.

Advantages and challenges

Secondary research has several benefits:

  • Enables use of large-scale data sets or large samples of human or model organism specimens
  • Can be less expensive and time-consuming than primary data collection
  • May be simpler (and expedited) if an Institutional Review Board waives the need for informed consent for a secondary research project

Potential downsides to consider might include:

  • Original data may not be a perfect fit for your current research question or study design
  • Details on previous data collection procedures may be scarce
  • Data may potentially lack depth
  • Often requires special techniques for statistical data analysis

Know the rules of the road

As you consider secondary research, be sure to get familiar with related regulations and rules. There may be requirements to access and use secondary data or specimens as stipulated by NIH-supported scientific data repositories or other sources of information. Generally, data repositories with controlled access, such as the NIA Genetics of Alzheimer’s Disease Data Storage Site (NIAGADS) or the Database of Genotypes and Phenotypes, require investigators to sign a Data Use Certification Agreement (PDF, 775K) to ensure protection of sensitive data.

Additional potential requirements can include:

Reach out with questions!

With these guidelines in mind, secondary research can be quite valuable to your studies. If you have questions, please refer to the FAQs About Secondary Research or leave a comment below. For specific questions related to preparing a DMS plan for the generation of secondary data for your research, contact your NIA Program Officer.

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