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Systematic and Systematic-like Reviews

Step 1: Identify your answerable research question

A research 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!

Follow these steps to try to nail down your research question:

  • Choose a broad topic you are interested in, such as “Queensland rainforests” or “young adult literature”.
  • Do some quick searches of the literature in this 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 general topic, such as “How have the themes of young adult literature changed over the past 20 years?” or “What impact has climate change had on the ecology of Queensland rainforests?
  • When you think you've come up with a question, evaluate it:
    • What new knowledge will 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 Center for Innovation in Research and Teaching (CIRT), Writing a Good Research Question, or watch the instructional video below from the Laurier University Library in Canada.

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.

PICO is a search framework commonly used in the health sciences to focus clinical questions.  An example might be, “Does cranberry juice help reduce urinary tract infections in people living in aged care facilities?” The PICO framework would look like this:


  People living in aged care facilities


  Cranberry juice


  No cranberry juice (status quo)


  Prevention of UTIs

You could also adapt this framework to PICOT (which adds Time) or PICOS (which adds Study design), or PICOC (adding Context). 

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 PICO search, you would often exclude the O (outcome) terms in your search strategy. If the C (comparison) is the status quo, you wouldn't use those terms either.