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Developing the research question

Image: “question mark” by WingedWolf is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A systematic review is an in-depth attempt to answer a specific, focused question in a methodical way. 

A clearly defined research question should accurately and succinctly sum up the review’s line of inquiry. 

In developing the research question ensure that it is not just a topic, but a properly formulated question that is answerable. 

Will your question have a focus on diagnosis, intervention, prognosis, or etiology? Is there a study design (e.g. Randomised Controlled Trials) that would provide the best answer?

A good question will combine several concepts. Identifying the relevant concepts is crucial to the successful development and execution of your systematic review. Your research question should provide you with a checklist of the main concepts to be included in your search strategy.

If appropriate, use a framework to help you develop your research question. A framework will assist in identifying the important concepts in your question. 

One technique often used to help formulate a clinical research question is the PICO model.

P = Population / Patient / Problem
I = Intervention / Indicator
C = Comparison / Control
O = Outcome

There are other frameworks such as SPICE, SPIDER, and ECLIPSE. More information on these frameworks is available from the online library guide: Systematic Reviews


If you were researching the effectiveness of acupuncture for treating allergic rhinitis, you might begin with a research question that looks like the following: 

How effective is acupuncture in treating allergic rhinitis? 

This question could be improved by utilising the PICO framework to look like this: 

Think about one of your research questions. How might you adjust the question by applying the use of the PICO framework? 

 Best Practice Tip

Prior to commencing the systematic review, first determine if a similar review has been recently done.

You could do this by searching relevant databases or the PROSPERO register of systematic reviews.



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