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Systematic and Systematic-like Reviews

Identify your answerable research question

According to the Writing Center (George Mason University), a research question is a clear, focused, concise, complex, and arguable question around which you centre your research.

You need to do this no matter what type of review you are undertaking.

To arrive at your research question:

  • Do some quick searches of the literature in the field to help you see what has been researched already, what questions have been raised and how you might focus your research.
  • Start asking questions about your topic.
  • Use one of the frameworks below to narrow and focus your question.

When you think you've come up with a question, evaluate it:

  • What new knowledge would come out of your research?
  • Is your question very clear?  (This will help you direct your systematic search)
  • Is your question focussed but not too complex? It’s important to find a balance between a question that is too broad, with an enormous body of research attached, and one that is so specific you will find almost no research at all relating to it.

For more information, see:

Search frameworks

Search frameworks are mnemonics which can help you focus your research question. They are also useful in helping you to identify the concepts and terms you will use in your literature search. There are several frameworks:

  • PICO is a search framework commonly used in the health sciences to focus clinical questions:
P Population/Patient/Problem
I Intervention
C Comparison
O Outcome

Variations of PICO include:

  • PICOT (which adds Time)
  • PICOS (which adds Study design)
  • PICOC (which adds Context).

For qualitative questions you can use:

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

For questions about causes or risk, there is:

  • PEO: Population, Exposure, Outcomes

For evaluations of interventions or policies, you can use 

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

For examples of questions and their related frameworks, see the Question Frameworks from the University of Notre Dame Australia. 

For some information and exercises on using PICO see Using PICO to frame clinical questions and Using PICO to identify search terms from the National Library of Medicine's training course on Using PubMed in Clinical Practice.

This articleshows examples of different frameworks: Kabir, R., (2023). The systematic literature review process: A simple guide for public health and allied health students. International Journal of Research in Medical Sciences, 11(9), 3498-3506.


  • You might not need all the elements of your search framework in your search. In a PICO search, you will often need only the P and I elements search concepts/terms.
  • Contact your Library Faculty Team for help or advice!

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