Literature Searching

Overview and tips on how to conduct a literature search.

Types of Research Questions

Research questions can be categorized into different types, depending on the type of research to be undertaken.

Qualitative questions concern broad areas or more specific areas of research and focus on discovering, explaining and exploring.  Types of qualitative questions include:

  • Exploratory Questions, which seeks to understand without influencing the results.  The objective is to learn more about a topic without bias or preconceived notions.
  • Predictive Questions, which seek to understand the intent or future outcome around a topic.
  • Interpretive Questions, which tries to understand people’s behavior in a natural setting.  The objective is to understand how a group makes sense of shared experiences with regards to various phenomena.

Quantitative questions prove or disprove a researcher’s hypothesis and are constructed to express the relationship between variables  and whether this relationship is significant.  Types of quantitative questions include:

  • Descriptive questions, which are the most basic type of quantitative research question and seeks to explain the when, where, why or how something occurred. 
  • Comparative questions are helpful when studying groups with dependent variables where one variable is compared with another.
  • Relationship-based questions try to answer whether or not one variable has an influence on another.  These types of question are generally used in experimental research questions.

References/Additional Resources

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

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

Fandino W.(2019). Formulating a good research question: Pearls and pitfalls. Indian J Anaesth. 63(8):611-616. 

Beck, L. L. (2023). The question: types of research questions and how to develop them. In Translational Surgery: Handbook for Designing and Conducting Clinical and Translational Research (pp. 111-120). Academic Press. 

Doody, O., & Bailey, M. E. (2016). Setting a research question, aim and objective. Nurse Researcher, 23(4), 19–23.

Plano Clark, V., & Badiee, M. (2010). Research questions in mixed methods research. In: SAGE Handbook of Mixed Methods in Social & Behavioral Research.  SAGE Publications, Inc.,

Agee, J. (2009). Developing qualitative research questions: A reflective processInternational journal of qualitative studies in education22(4), 431-447. 

Flemming, K., & Noyes, J. (2021). Qualitative Evidence Synthesis: Where Are We at? International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 20. 

Research Question Frameworks

Research question frameworks have been designed to help structure research questions and clarify the main concepts. Not every question can fit perfectly into a framework, but using even just parts of a framework can help develop a well-defined research question. The framework to use depends on the type of question to be researched.   There are over 25 research question frameworks available.  The University of Maryland has a nice table listing out several of these research question frameworks, along with what the acronyms mean and what types of questions/disciplines that may be used for.

The process of developing a good research question involves taking your topic and breaking each aspect of it down into its component parts.


Booth, A., Noyes, J., Flemming, K., Moore, G., Tunçalp, Ö., & Shakibazadeh, E. (2019). Formulating questions to explore complex interventions within qualitative evidence synthesis. BMJ global health4(Suppl 1), e001107. (See supplementary data#1)

The "Well-Built Clinical Question“: PICO(T)

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

A PICO(T) question has the following components:

  • P: The patient’s disorder or disease or problem of interest / research object
  • I: The intervention, exposure or finding under review / Application of a theory or method
  • C: A comparison intervention or control (if applicable- not always present)/ Alternative theories or methods (or, in their absence, the null hypothesis)
  • O: The outcome(s) (desired or of interest) / Knowledge generation
  • T: (The time factor or period)

Keep in mind that solely using a tool will not enable you to design a good question. What is required is for you to think, carefully, about exactly what you want to study and precisely what you mean by each of the things that you think you want to study.

References/Additional Resources

Rzany, & Bigby, M. (n.d.). Formulating Well-Built Clinical Questions. In Evidence-based dermatology / (pp. 27–30). Blackwell Pub/BMJ Books. 

Nishikawa-Pacher, A. (2022). Research questions with PICO: a universal mnemonic. Publications10(3), 21.

Last Updated: Aug 21, 2023 9:04 AM