Literature Searching

Overview and tips on how to conduct a literature search.

Characteristics of a good research question

The first step in a literature search is to construct a well-defined question.  This helps in ensuring a comprehensive and efficient search of the available literature for relevant publications on your topic.  The well-constructed research question provides guidance for determining search terms and search strategy parameters.

A good or well-constructed research question is:

  • Original and of interest to the researcher and the outside world
  • It is clear and focused: it provides enough specifics that it is easy to understand its purpose and it is narrow enough that it can be answered. If the question is too broad it may not be possible to answer it thoroughly. If it is too narrow you may not find enough resources or information to develop a strong argument or research hypothesis.  
  • The question concept is researchable in terms of time and access to a suitable amount of quality research resources.
  • It is analytical rather than descriptive. The research question should allow you to produce an analysis of an issue or problem rather than a simple description of it.  In other words, it is not answerable with a simple “yes” or “no” but requires a synthesis and analysis of ideas and sources.
  • The results are potentially important and may change current ideas and/or practice
  • And there is the potential to develop further projects with similar themes

The question you ask should be developed for the discipline you are studying. A question appropriate for Physical Therapy, for instance, is different from an appropriate one in Sociology, Political Science or Microbiology .

The well-constructed question provides guidance for determining search terms and search strategy parameters. The process of developing a good question to research involves taking your topic and breaking each aspect of it down into its component parts. 

One well-established way that can be used both for creating research questions and developing strategies is known as PICO(T). The PICO framework was designed primarily for questions that include clinical interventions and comparisons, however other types of questions may also be able to follow its principles.  If the PICO framework does not precisely fit your question, using its principles can help you to think about what you want to explore even if you do not end up with a true PICO question.

References/Additional Resources

Fandino W. (2019). Formulating a good research question: Pearls and pitfalls. Indian journal of anaesthesia63(8), 611–616. 

Vandenbroucke, J. P., & Pearce, N. (2018). From ideas to studies: how to get ideas and sharpen them into research questionsClinical epidemiology10, 253–264.

Ratan, S. K., Anand, T., & Ratan, J. (2019). Formulation of Research Question - Stepwise ApproachJournal of Indian Association of Pediatric Surgeons24(1), 15–20.

Lipowski, E.E. (2008). Developing great research questions. American Journal of Health-System Pharmacy, 65(17), 1667–1670.

FINER Criteria

Another set of criteria for developing a research question was proposed by Hulley (2013) and is known as the FINER criteria. 

FINER stands for:

Feasible – Writing a feasible research question means that it CAN be answered under objective aspects like time, scope, resources, expertise, or funding. Good questions must be amenable to the formulation of clear hypotheses.

Interesting – The question or topic should be of interest to the researcher and the outside world. It should have a clinical and/or educational significance – the “so what?” factor. 

Novel – In scientific literature, novelty defines itself by being an answer to an existing gap in knowledge. Filling one of these gaps is highly rewarding for any researcher as it may represent a real difference in peoples’ lives.

Good research leads to new information. An investigation which simply reiterates what is previously proven is not worth the effort and cost. A question doesn’t have to be completely original. It may ask whether an earlier observation could be replicated, whether the results in one population also apply to others, or whether enhanced measurement methods can make clear the relationship between two variables.  

Ethical – In empirical research, ethics is an absolute MUST. Make sure that safety and confidentiality measures are addressed, and according to the necessary IRB protocols.

Relevant – An idea that is considered relevant in the healthcare community has better chances to be discussed upon by a larger number of researchers and recognized experts, leading to innovation and rapid information dissemination.

The results could potentially be important and may change current ideas and/or practice.

Cummings, S.R., Browner, W.S., & Hulley, S.B. (2013). Conceiving the research question and developing the study plan. In: Designing clinical research (Hulley, S. R. Cummings, W. S. Browner, D. Grady, & T. B. Newman, Eds.; Fourth edition.). Wolters Kluwer/Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. Pp. 14-22.   

Last Updated: Feb 7, 2024 1:26 PM