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Systematic Reviews & Evidence Synthesis Methods

Formulate Question

Formulate your Research Question

Formulating a strong research question for a systematic review can be a lengthy process. While you may have an idea about the topic you want to explore, your specific research question is what will drive your review and requires some consideration. 

You will want to conduct preliminary or exploratory searches of the literature as you refine your question. In these searches you will want to:

  • Determine if a systematic review has already been conducted on your topic and if so, how yours might be different, or how you might shift or narrow your anticipated focus.
  • Scope the literature to determine if there is enough literature on your topic to conduct a systematic review.
  • Identify key concepts and terminology.
  • Identify seminal or landmark studies.
  • Identify key studies that you can test your search strategy against (more on that later).
  • Begin to identify databases that might be useful to your search question.

Types of Research Questions for Systematic Reviews

A narrow and specific research question is required in order to conduct a systematic review. The goal of a systematic review is to provide an evidence synthesis of ALL research performed on one particular topic. Your research question should be clearly answerable from the studies included in your review. 

Another consideration is whether the question has been answered enough to warrant a systematic review. If there have been very few studies, there won't be enough qualitative and/or quantitative data to synthesize. You then have to adjust your question... widen the population, broaden the topic, reconsider your inclusion and exclusion criteria, etc.

When developing your question, it can be helpful to consider the FINER criteria (Feasible, Interesting, Novel, Ethics, and Relevant). Read more about the FINER criteria on the Elsevier blog.

If you have a broader question or aren't certain that your question has been answered enough in the literature, you may be better served by pursuing a systematic map, also know as a scoping review. Scoping reviews are conducted to give a broad overview of a topic, to review the scope and themes of the prior research, and to identify the gaps and areas for future research.

Sample Question Suitable Review Type
What is the effectiveness of talk therapy in treating ADHD in children? Systematic Review
What treatments are available for treating children with ADHD? Systematic Map/Scoping Review

Are animal-assisted therapies as effective as traditional cognitive behavioral therapies in treating people with depressive disorders?

Systematic Review

Learn More . . .

Cochrane Handbook Chapter 2 - Determining the scope of the review and the questions it will address

Frameworks for Developing your Research Question

PICO: Patient/Population, Intervention, Comparison, Outcome.

PEO: Population, Exposure, Outcomes

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

For more frameworks and guidance on developing the research question, check out:

1. Advanced Literature Search and Systematic Reviews: Selecting a Framework. City University of London Library

2. Select the Appropriate Framework for your Question. Tab "1-1" from PIECES: A guide to developing, conducting, & reporting reviews [Excel workbook]. Margaret J. Foster, Texas A&M University. CC-BY-3.0 license.

3. Formulating a Research Question. University College London Library. Systematic Reviews.

4. Question Guidance. UC Merced Library. Systematic Reviews

Video - Formulating a Research Question (4:43 minutes)

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