Developing researchable questions
Developing researchable questions
A clear and specific research question is crucial to conducting a meaningful research study. Your research question will guide your literature searches and will inform what type of study design you need to undertake. In the early stages you may go back and forth between reading relevant literature and working on your question, so don’t be concerned if there is some back and forth as your question(s) become clearer.
So how do you develop well-written research question? Watch this clip from Dr Louise Greenstock to find out.
The PICO/PECO framework
The PICO/PECO framework is a popular mnemonic used to develop clinical questions.
Please note, the PICO/PECO framework was originally proposed by Richardson et al. (1995) to help researchers structure a literature review question, so we recommend seeing these acronyms as a useful guide to assist in turning your research idea to a question using PICO/PECO/PEO (or other). There is no one size fits all with research questions so if you are stuck, be sure to reach out to your Research Translation Coordinator for some guidance and support.
Comparator (does not apply to every question)
Who is the population or patient of interest?
eg: age, disease/ condition, gender, job title
What intervention/ what will you do or introduce?/ How will you intervene?
eg: new drug, procedure, model of care
What is the experience or exposure of interest? / What is it that your research population has experienced that you are interested in?
eg: exposure to bushfire smoke, born prematurely, working in rural areas, working on a farm
What is the alternative?
eg: standard care, another intervention, placebo
What is the outcome of interest?
eg: what you’re trying to improve, affect, measure
- Compared to standard care (C), does a Montessori model of care (I) improve quality of life (O) for nursing home residents (P)?
- Compared to standard care (C), is an allied health-led multidisciplinary prehabilitation program (I) feasible (O) for women with breast cancer (P)?
- In adult females (P), does use of the oral contraceptive pill (E) (compared to no oral contraceptive medication usage) (C) increase the risk of getting breast cancer in the future (O)?
- What is the rate of urinary retention (O) in adults with symptoms related to overactive bladder (P) who have been treated with intravesical botox (E) compared with those who have had no treatment (C)?
If your question does not fit perfectly into the framework, using part of the framework can sometimes be sufficient. For example, your question may not need a Comparator. Therefore, using PEO can be useful for qualitative questions around aetiology or risk.
- What are the experiences of (O) healthcare professionals (P) working with people with dysphagia who make the decision to feed at acknowledged risk (E)?
- In primary school aged children (P), is there an association between screen time use (E) and behavioural outcomes (O)
Richardson, W.S., Wilson, M.C., Nishikawa, J. and Hayward, R.S. (1995) The Well-Built Clinical Question: A Key to Evidence-Based Decisions. ACP Journal Club, 123, A12-A13. doi: 10.7326/ACPJC-1995-123-3-A12
Depending on your field of study and research question you might like to use an alternative framework. Some popular alternative frameworks include:
SPICE – useful for evaluating an intervention, service or policy.
Booth (2006). Clear and present questions: formulating questions for evidence based practice. Library Hi Tech 24(3):355-368. doi: 10.1108/07378830610692127.
- Does a mentored research training program (I) increase the level of self-reported research experience (E) of practitioners (P) working in rural health settings (S)?
(NB baseline self-reported research experience is the comparator)
SPIDER – useful for qualitative or mixed methods research focused on samples rather than populations.
Cooke, Smith, & Booth (2012). Beyond PICO: the SPIDER tool for qualitative evidence synthesis. Qual Health Res 22(10):1435-1443. doi: 10.1177/1049732312452938
- Phenomenon of Interest
- Research type
ECLIPSE – useful for topics investigating the outcomes of a policy or service.
Wildridge & Bell (2002). How CLIP became ECLIPSE: a mnemonic to assist in searching for health policy/management information. Health Info Libr J 19(2):113-4. doi: 10.1046/j.1471-1842.2002.00378.x.
- Client group
Remember … these frameworks are tools to guide the development of a simple yet specific research question or questions. You may need to play around with different wording – and this is perfectly normal.
Doody & Bailey (2016) Setting a research question, aim and objective. Nurse Res 23(4):19-23. doi: 10.7748/nr.23.4.19.s5.
Mattick, Johnston & de la Croix (2018) How to…write a good research question. Clin Teach 15(2):104-108. doi: 10.1111/tct.12776 [Open Access]
The University of Notre Dame Australia provides some additional information on PICO alternatives: https://library.nd.edu.au/evidencebasedpractice/ask/question