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Systematic and Complex Reviews

Creating a research question

The research question clarifies a broader area interest into a more specific focus of interest (Bouchrika, 2020), creating an "unambiguous statement that clearly articulates the phenomenon you plan to investigate” (Kross & Giust, 2018).

  • The research question is as specific and concise as possible to ensure clarity. 
  • Only use words or terms that add to the meaning of the research question.
  • Generally write a logically progressive statement  moving from what is known to what is not known and requires validation (Lipowski, 2008).
  • A well structured research question will generally have easily identifiable elements.

Selecting a framework

A clear and comprehensive search strategy is a critical step in planning a systematic review. Searching frameworks are commonly used to ensure the essential concepts related to the research question have been identified.

The most commonly used framework is PICO: Population, Intervention, Comparison, Outcome. This framework is used most often for effectiveness reviews and can be adapted for other reviews.

Some research disciplines prefer different frameworks to PICO, particularly qualitative researchers. Review the tabs above for more details on other frameworks.

PCC: Population, Concept, Context. This framework is often applied to qualitative reviews.

P  Population C  Concept C  Context

CIMO: Context, Intervention, Mechanisms, Outcomes

C  Context I  Intervention M  Mechanisms O  Outcomes

SPIDER: Sample, Phenomena of Interest, Design, Evaluation, Research Type

S  Sample PI  Phenomenon of Interest D  Design E  Evaluation R  Research Type

 SPICE: Setting, Perspective, Interest, Comparison, Evaluation

S  Setting P  Perspective I  Interest C  Comparison E  Evaluation

Used in Realist reviews.

The following guides provide more models and frameworks across many different disciplines and types of research questions.


Booth, A. (2006). Clear and present questions: Formulating questions for evidence based practice. Library hi tech.

Bouchrika, I.(2020). How to write a research question: Types, steps, and examples.

Kross, J., & Giust, A. (2019). Elements of research questions in relation to qualitative inquiry. Qualitative Report24(1), 24-30.

Lipowski, E. E. (2008). Developing great research questions. American Journal of Health-System Pharmacy65(17), 1667-1670.

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