Home > Academic Research > Formulating Research Questions for a Systematic Review – Steps & Examples

Published by at November 7th, 2023 , Revised On November 7, 2023

Formulating Research Questions for a Systematic Review – Steps & Examples

The foundation of any systematic review is a well-structured research question, as conducting one is extensive. The research questions are used as the systematic review’s compass, assisting researchers in defining their objectives, locating pertinent papers, and gathering insightful data. This blog article will discuss the critical component of developing research questions for a systematic review, along with step-by-step instructions and real-world examples to help clarify the procedure.

The Significance of a Well-Defined Research Question

Before discussing the steps to formulate research questions for a systematic review, let’s understand why this aspect is crucial in academic research.

A systematic review is a structured approach for compiling and evaluating the body of research that has been done on a certain topic. In contrast with traditional literature reviews, which could be less methodical and comprehensive, systematic reviews adhere to a predetermined process to minimise bias. The first step in this approach is to establish a specific and well-defined research question.

Here’s why a well-defined research question is essential:

  • Focus And Clarity
  • It provides clarity on the topic of interest, helping researchers avoid drifting into irrelevant areas.
  • Minimising Bias
  • A clear research question reduces the risk of bias by ensuring that the inclusion and exclusion criteria are set in advance, preventing the cherry-picking of studies that support a particular viewpoint.
  • Efficient Literature Search 
  • It guides the search for relevant studies, making it more efficient and ensuring no pertinent research is missed.
  • Objective Data Extraction 
  • The research question serves as a benchmark for data extraction, ensuring that researchers collect data aligned with their objectives.
  • Transparency
  • A well-formulated research question enhances the transparency and reproducibility of the systematic review, as others can clearly understand the study’s goals.

Now that we understand the importance of a well-defined research question let’s explore the steps to create one for your systematic review.

Steps to Formulate a Research Question for a Systematic Review

Step 1: Define Your Research Topic

The first step in formulating a research question for a systematic review is clearly defining your research topic. Be as specific as possible. Start by identifying the key concepts and elements of your research. For instance, if your research topic is “The impact of mindfulness meditation on anxiety in college students,” the key concepts are “mindfulness meditation” and “anxiety in college students.”

Step 2: Identify the Population, Intervention, Comparison, and Outcome (PICO)

PICO is a widely used framework for framing healthcare and clinical research questions. It stands for:

  • Population/Problem: Who or what is the target population, or what is the problem of interest?
  • Intervention: What intervention, exposure, or therapy are you studying?
  • Comparison: Is there a specific comparison group or alternative intervention?
  • Outcome: What outcomes or results are you looking for in your study?

Using the PICO framework, you can structure your research question more precisely. For our example, a PICO question might be: “In college students (P), does mindfulness meditation (I) compared to no intervention or conventional therapy (C) reduce anxiety levels (O)?”

Step 3: Add Additional Elements (If Necessary)

Not all systematic reviews will fit neatly into the PICO framework. Depending on your research topic, you might need to include additional elements to make your question comprehensive. For example, if your study involves a broader social or environmental context, you may need to add more components to your research question.

Step 4: Define Inclusion And Exclusion Criteria

Specify the inclusion and exclusion criteria for the papers you will consider in your systematic review to ensure that it is impartial and focused. While exclusion criteria list justifications for dismissing research, inclusion criteria define the qualities that studies must possess to be included in your evaluation.

According to our example, inclusion criteria could include reports of anxiety levels before and after mindfulness meditation, studies on college students, and publications in the English language. Research with a sample size of fewer than ten participants or studies lacking anxiety measures conducted before and after the intervention may be excluded.

Step 5: Consider the Scope of Your Review

Think about the scope of your systematic review. Is it a narrow review focused on a specific aspect of your topic, or is it a broader review that includes a wide range of studies? The scope will influence the breadth and specificity of your research question.

Step 6: Formulate the Research Question

With all the above elements in mind, it’s time to formulate your research question. A well-structured research question should be:

  • Clear and Concise: It should be easy to understand and not open to multiple interpretations.
  • Specific: It should focus on a particular aspect of the topic.
  • Measurable: The outcomes should be measurable and observable.
  • Feasible: Ensure that your question is answerable within the scope of your systematic review.

Using our example, a well-structured research question could be: “In college students, does mindfulness meditation significantly reduce anxiety levels compared to no intervention or conventional therapy?”

Now that we’ve outlined the steps to formulate a research question for a systematic review, let’s explore some real-life examples to illustrate the process.

Examples of Research Questions for Systematic Reviews

Example 1: Healthcare

Research Question: “In patients with Type 2 diabetes (P), does the use of telemedicine (I) compared to in-person healthcare delivery (C) result in better glycemic control (O)?”

In this example, the PICO framework is used to structure the question, focusing on a specific patient population, intervention, comparison, and outcome.

Example 2: Education

Research Question: “Among elementary school students (P), does the implementation of technology-assisted learning (I) compared to traditional classroom instruction (C) lead to improved math proficiency (O)?”

This research question in the field of education follows the PICO framework, considering the student population, the intervention (technology-assisted learning), the comparison (traditional classroom instruction), and the outcome (math proficiency).

Example 3: Environmental Science

Research Question: “In urban areas (P), does the presence of green spaces (I) compared to a lack of green spaces (C) have a positive impact on air quality (O)?”

This research question addresses the impact of green spaces on air quality in urban areas, following the PICO framework.

Example 4: Psychology

Research Question: “For individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder (P), does cognitive-behavioural therapy (I) compared to medication (C) result in greater reductions in symptom severity (O)?”

This research question in psychology employs the PICO framework to compare two different interventions for individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Additional Considerations

Following are a few additional considerations to keep in mind:


While formulating your research question, it’s essential to integrate secondary keywords relevant to your topic. In the examples provided, secondary keywords could include terms like “diabetes management,” “educational technology,” “urban planning,” and “PTSD treatment.”

Data Extraction in Systematic Reviews

Your research question will direct the data extraction procedure after it is well-defined. The process of extracting data from research includes methodically gathering pertinent information on study design, participant characteristics, intervention specifics, and outcome measures. This data is then used for analysis and synthesis in your systematic review.

Compared with Other Types of Reviews

It is imperative to differentiate systematic reviews from alternative review styles, including integrative, scoping, and standard literature reviews. Systematic reviews differ from others, following a strict process that includes a predetermined research question and a systematic search technique.


A systematic review’s foundational step in formulating a research question is to lay the groundwork for an impartial and well-organised review of the body of existing literature. You can formulate a precise, targeted research question that will successfully direct your systematic review by following the instructions in this blog article and considering actual cases. Remember that a well-structured research question is essential for conducting a clear, reproducible systematic review that adds significant insights to your field of study.

Torreto Marwano, ellie cross,

Frequently Asked Questions

Data extraction in a systematic review involves systematically collecting and recording essential information from selected studies to answer a specific research question. It includes details like study characteristics, participant demographics, interventions, and outcome measures.

To write data extraction in a systematic review, create a structured data extraction form, specify data sources, record study details, participant information, intervention specifics, outcome measures, and assess the risk of bias. Maintain accuracy, consistency, and transparency throughout the process.