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Systematic reviews - searching for literature: Preparing your database search

Reviewing your research question

Research topic or research question

The research topic is a key part of the search process, and obviously guides your search for literature. However,

It may not be appropriately phrased to use in the development of a search strategy

For that you need the research question.

Research question

  • Very often you will have one research question from which you can derive your search strategy
  • Sometimes you may need more than one research question and more than one search strategy.

Writing questions

Take time to review and rewrite your research question; it is very important but can be quite elusive. Try writing it on a piece of paper and then rewrite a number of times. You might also want to discuss it with someone if that is possible. It is interesting that, when discussing search questions with researchers, often after quite some time they will say  "...well actually what I am looking for is..." and then you are able to go back an review the question.

Search frameworks

There are many search frameworks that can help you to map your research topic to your keywords to you research question . Look at the further reading section on this page for links to useful information on the topic. Examples include:


Setting (context) - Perspective - Intervention - Comparison – Evaluation

(Booth 2006)

ECLIPSE (Health social care management, services, and policy)

Expectation - Client group - Location - Impact - Professional involved - Service

(Wildridge and Bell, 2002)


Population – Exposure – Outcome

(Bettany-Saltikov 2012)

The example later in this page develops a PICO question.

Laying out your search

A template is a useful way to lay out your search. Templates may differ slightly but follow a similar pattern of getting you to think about your research topic, keywords and research question. One template is available on the BU Health library guide (download from the 'Search Strategy Proforma' box) but you can always create one yourself. It should include

  • The research topic
  • The key topics laid out in a grid with each column titled respectively (see Search template example)
  • A section for your research title
  • A section for considering limiters
  • A section identifying databases to search

You may wonder how many columns you need to fill in. This varies, but you don't need to use all of them, even if you follow a structure like PICO. Sometimes you may only use two, and sometimes you may only use one.

Search template example

Search topic:

The use of mass media to prevent smoking in young people

Keyword table:

P (Population/Problem)

Young people

I (Intervention)

Mass media interventions

C (Comparison)

No comparison

O (Outcome)

Preventing smoking

Child Mass media   Cigarette
Adolescent Radio   Cigar
Young adult Television   Tobacco
School child Newspapers   AND
  Advertising   Reduction

Research question:

Are mass media interventions effective in preventing smoking in young people?


Peer reviewed:
Publication date range:
Age range:

Sources to search:

Minimum: Cochrane; PROSPERO; Medline; Embase; CINAHL; PsycINFO;

Further reading