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ENG599 Research Skills Guide: Step 1: Identify your answerable research question

This guide is designed to support students completing ENG599

Step 1: Identify your answerable review question

As we found in the Develop a Research Topic section of this guide, there are a number of steps to take in order to develop a good research topic. Developing the research questions around that topic is the next in your process. One of these questions will be used in your scoping review.

When you start your scoping review, you need to identify your answerable question that you will answer as part of your scoping review.

A review question is "a clear, focused, concise, complex and arguable question around which you center your research. You should ask a question about an issue that you are genuinely curious about."  The Writing Center, GMU.

You need to do this no matter what type of review you are undertaking, and it's often not as easy as it seems!

Make sure you have followed the steps in the Developing a research topic section of this guide before you look at frameworks below.

Search frameworks

Search frameworks use mnemonics to help you focus your research question further. They will also guide you in developing search concepts and terms.

CIMO is a search framework commonly used in the management and policy questions.  An example question might be, ““What is the extent, range, and nature of the published peer-reviewed literature on the implementation and outcomes of source water protection programs involving Indigenous populations in Canada and the United States."?” The CIMO framework would look like this:

  Context

Which individuals, relationships, institutional settings, or wider systems are being studied?

Indigenous populations in Canada and the United States

  Intervention  

The effects of what event, action, or activity are being studied?

Implementation and outcomes of source water protection programs

  Mechanisms

What are the mechanisms that explain the relationship between interventions and outcomes? Under what circumstances are these mechanisms activated or not activated?

No Indigenous involvement (status quo)

  Outcomes

What are the effects of the intervention? How will the outcomes be measured? What are the intended and unintended effects?

Degree of inclusion of Indigenous people on implementation

You could also adapt this framework to CIMOT (which adds Time) or CIMOS (which adds Study design).

Other frameworks may be helpful, depending on your question and your field of interest:

For qualitative questions you could use

  • SPIDER: Sample, Phenomenon of Interest, Design, Evaluation, Research type  

For questions about causes or risk,

  • PEO: Population, Exposure, Outcomes

For evaluations of interventions or policies, 

  • SPICE: Setting, Population or Perspective, Intervention, Comparison, Evaluation or
  • ECLIPSE: Expectation, Client group, Location, Impact, Professionals, SErvice 

See the University of Notre Dame Australia’s examples of some of these frameworks. 

TIP:  If you use all the elements of your search framework to combine terms, you may find you have narrowed the search too much and will struggle to find relevant studies. Try using only the most critical elements from the mnemonic. For example, in a CIMO search, you would often exclude the O (outcome) terms in your search strategy. If the M (mechanism) is the status quo, you wouldn't use those terms either. 

Writing an effective research question

Jensen, E., & Laurie, C. (Academic). (2017). Writing an effective research question [Streaming video]. Retrieved from SAGE Research Methods.

Further reading

Thomas, J., Kneale, D., McKenzie, J. E., Brennan, S. E., & Bhaumik, S. (2019). Determining the scope of the review and the questions it will address. In Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews of Interventions (6th ed.). Retrieved from https://training.cochrane.org/handbook/current

The Writing Center. (2018). How to write a research question [Blog post]. Retrieve from https://writingcenter.gmu.edu/guides/how-to-write-a-research-question

Charles Sturt University acknowledges the traditional custodians of the lands on which its campuses are located, paying respect to Elders, both past and present, and extend that respect to all First Nations Peoples.

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