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ACAP Library Pathfinder: Systematic Searching for a Review

This guide provides a methodology for planning and creating a multi-database search strategy for students who are writing a review.

Determining the Review Question

Your review question should ideally be: 

  • Answerable
  • Clear, concise, specific, and focused
  • Not (recently) answered by other studies
  • Framed in a single sentence.

Consider these three question types (note these types relate to more clinical questions):

  • Etiology: Factors that predispose a population toward a certain condition (Why does D change with E in population F? Or What causes D to change in population F?).
  • Prediction: Likelihood of a condition in a population (Will X affect Y? Or How will X affect Y? Or How will X progress over time?).
  • Intervention: A therapeutic measure to address a condition in a population (Will J perform better than K at achieving outcome L?). (Eldredge, 2002, p.10)

The style, where possible could look something like this:

 “To assess the effects of [intervention or comparison] for [health problem] in [types of people, disease or problem, and setting if specified].
This might then be followed by one or more secondary objectives, for example, relating to different participant groups, different comparisons of interventions, or different outcome measures" (Squires et al., 2014, p. 1215). 

The FINER and PICO frameworks can be employed to assist with the drafting of effective review or research questions.

To formulate an effective research question, it is essential to satisfy several criteria, including (but not limited to) those described by FINER: feasible, interesting, novel, ethical, and relevant. Note that certain criteria, such as novelty, may have limited applicability in the context of framing systematic review questions.

When constructing a research question, careful attention should be given to various fundamental elements, including specifying the target population (participants), interventions (and comparisons), and outcomes. A useful mnemonic for remembering these elements is the acronym PICO, which stands for Population, Interventions, Comparisons, and Outcomes. Some recommend incorporating timeframe, context, study design, or research methodology as a fifth consideration (Squires et al., 2014).


Further Reading

Squires, J. E., Valentine, J. C., & Grimshaw, J. M. (2013). Systematic reviews of complex interventions: Framing the review question. Journal of Clinical Epidemiology66(11), 1215–1222.

Eriksen, M. B. (2018). The impact of patient, intervention, comparison, outcome (PICO) as a search strategy tool on literature search quality: A systematic review. Journal of the Medical Library Association, 106(4), 420–431.

Eldredge, J. D. (2002). Evidenceā€based librarianship: what might we expect in the years ahead? Health Information and Libraries Journal19(2), 71–77.

Determining the Question with PICO+

The PICO+ or PECO framework is a commonly used tool that assists reviewers when formulating a review question.  Note that the frameworks presented here are intended to be guides and some or all the elements listed below may be used to formulate questions. The more elements used in the question, the more focused or narrow it will be. 

P = People/population or problem 
I/E = Intervention or exposure/event 
= Comparison or control
O = Outcome  
= Timeframe

Other variations include:

PICOC: C = Context (useful for social science reviews)

PICOS: S = Study designs 

PICOTS: TS = Timing and setting

PICOR: R = Research type/methodology

Broad Questions

  • Used for rapid or scoping reviews and searches or to establish a general understanding of the problem or topic along with an awareness of the associated research that has been conducted.
  • Here, you might only use two PICO(T) elements such as an intervention or event (I/E) and population or problem (P).

A broad question might be formulated in this way: 

What is the impact of Social Media use on mental health and well-being (I/E) in early adolescence (P)? 

Narrow Questions

  • Narrow questions use many, if not all, of the PICO+ elements. They are formulated to look at a specific topic and help define the key terms used when searching library databases. Literature reviews and systematic reviews might employ these elements. 

A more focused or narrow question might be formulated in this way:

For adolescents (P), how do educational programs (I) compare to individual therapies (C) to reduce negative mental health effects of cyberbullying (O) in secondary school (TS)?

A brief version of the PICO(T) research question generator below can be used to assist you when formulating a review question.  You may also want to review the full version of the generator, which takes approximately 15 minutes to complete:

PICOT Research Question Generator

Other Frameworks

ECLIPSE = Expectation/Client group/Location/Impact/Professionals/Service (evaluating services)

PIC = Population, Phenomena of Interest, Context

SPIDER =Sample, Phenomenon of Interest, Design, Evaluation, Research type

PEO = Population, Exposure, Outcomes

SPICE = Setting , Population or Perspective, Intervention, Comparison, Evaluation


Further Reading

Wildridge, V., & Bell, L. (2002). How CLIP became ECLIPSE: a mnemonic to assist in searching for health policy/management information. Health Information and Libraries Journal19(2), 113–115.

Cooke, A., Smith, D., & Booth, A. (2012). Beyond PICO: The SPIDER Tool for Qualitative Evidence Synthesis. Qualitative Health Research22(10), 1435–1443.

Methley, A. M., Campbell, S., Chew-Graham, C., McNally, R., & Cheraghi-Sohi, S. (2014). PICO, PICOS and SPIDER: a comparison study of specificity and sensitivity in three search tools for qualitative systematic reviews. BMC Health Services Research14(1), 579–579.

Davies, K. S. (2011). Formulating the Evidence Based Practice Question: A Review of the Frameworks. Evidence Based Library and Information Practice6(2), 75–80.