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Systematic searching: 1. From topic to research question

From topic to research questions

A systematic search always starts with defining the research topic. Aim to choose a topic that interests you at least to some extent or a topic that you would genuinely like to find research information on. A systematic search requires both time and perseverance, so a topic that motivates you will also help you to complete your research with flying colours. 

Once you have chosen your topic, you should define the research question(s) that your research will seek to answer based on your protocol. You should take your time formulating your research questions. Keep your questions neutral, i.e. do not make assumptions in your questions about what kind of information you will find. A good research question is precise, well-defined and sufficiently simple.

The PICO model

There are different models you can use to help you formulate your research questions. The best-known of these is probably the PICO model. In the PICO model, you break down your topic into concepts and identify the components of your research question, i.e.

  • Patient/Population
  • Intervention 
  • Comparison
  • Outcome

Remember, however, that it depends entirely on your topic whether it fits into the PICO model or not. For more information, take a look at the links below. In addition, keep in mind that the PICO model concepts do not always translate directly into the topics or groups of concepts of your information search. 

PICO example

Research question: What are the effects of physical activity on the performance of basic activities of daily living for people with dementia compared to conventional treatment (or another non-pharmacological method)?






physical activity



conventional treatment (or another non-pharmacological method)



activities of daily living (ADL)


Reference: Tutkimustiedon hakeminen. Hotus: Hoitotyön tutkimussäätiö. 

Preliminary searches

It is often a good idea to carry out a preliminary search on a topic while deciding on your final topic and defining your research questions. By looking into published literature you will have a better idea of how much and what kind of literature is available on the subject from the beginning of your research.  

Video: Preparing for a systematic search

Example topic

The topic "Nursing students' hand hygiene skills" could be formulated into the following research question:

What factors contribute to nursing students' hand hygiene competence during their studies?



Image: StartupStockPhotos

PICO alternatives

In particular, qualitative research topics can be difficult to fit into the PICO model. This is where models developed specifically for qualitative research questions, such as SPIDER, SPICE and ECLIPSe, can be useful.
Read more on these models via the links below.