Researching for your literature review: 3. Frame your research question

Frame your research question

Define your topic

It is easier to search when your research topic is clearly defined. Even if you haven’t determined the exact focus of your research yet, spend some time becoming familiar with the research area.

Expressing your topic in a sentence or two may help. Writing helps to clarify so use full sentences not dot points, as they are complete thoughts. Trying to verbally express the subject matter is another method of clarifying your thinking.

Scoping searches

Do background research to extend your understanding of the research area and the terminology used in its discussion. Reference works such as dictionaries, encyclopedias and handbooks are useful to define terms and understand related concepts. Review articles can be useful for gaining an overview of a topic.

Doing some broad preliminary searching may help you understand the quantity of existing literature in your area of interest, and establish a basis for your later more complex searching when you have developed your search strategy. The Search catalogue and Google Scholar are good choices for preliminary searching.

The research question

The research question will determine the method of the review and the types of studies included.

One way to develop your research question is to put your topic into the format of a question to be answered by the literature.

For example, the sample research question we will use in this guide is:

What strategies can healthcare workers use to communicate effectively with clients with a hearing disability?


Open Knowledge Maps is a tool that can be utilised to get an overview of a research topic (the main research areas in the published literature and key papers related to each).


Search on your topic using the PubMed or BASE database options.

  • You will be presented with a topical overview with similar papers clustered together under a research label for that area
  • The visualisation is based on the 100 most relevant documents for your search terms
  • The size of the circles is proportionate to the number of papers in the top 100
  • The knowledge map will highlight some papers in each area
  • Many will be open access papers with the full text available from the interface, others may need to be accessed via Monash Library for the full text.

See the Using mind maps box on the right of the page for more information on mindmapping.         

See below an example of a mindmap using FreeMind software:

What is PICO?

PICO is a framework that may be useful to help formulate a research question that is answerable in the literature. It is commonly used in medical and health disciplines.

Placing your research question into the PICO framework can also give you clarity about the different elements within your question, how they relate to each other, and the information needed in order to answer your question.

PICO is often used for research questions relating to a therapy. There are variations of PICO that may work better for other research questions. It is not necessary to use a framework such as PICO for a literature review, but you may choose to do so.

P             Who or what is your patient or population group?

I               What is you intervention or indicator?

C             What is your comparison or control (if applicable)?

O             What outcome are you looking for?  

Create your answerable question with PICO

Once you have identified the PICO elements, try putting it into a sentence:

In [P] ________________________ does [I] _________________________ compared to [C] ________________________

result in [O] ________________________ ?

In our example (and in most reviews), there is no comparator so we would use [P], [I] AND [O] only to create our answerable question:

In healthcare workers what communication strategies result in more effective communication with clients with a hearing disability?

You can then start developing a search strategy using keywords derived from your research question, and informed by the results of your preliminary searches.


Using mind maps

mindmapMind-mapping is a term used for creating a visual relationships between ideas, concepts and themes.

Mapping techniques are useful at the very beginning of the literature review to assist with brainstorming for keywords and related terms .

Concept mapping can also be useful throughout the review process to help you identify and understand central arguments in the literature.


There are a range of free mind mapping tools on the Web, including the commonly used tool Freemind.