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Scoping reviews

Using research question frameworks

Formulating an answerable search question is essential to finding the best evidence for your topic. You can use the research question frameworks to help you structure your search question and enable you to find the information you need most effectively. There are a range of different frameworks available, and the one you use will depend on whether your review plans to explore quantitative or qualitative evidence and the specific purpose of your review.

The formulating a search question guide provides an introduction to using research question frameworks in practice.

Research question/ search frameworks

The JBI recommend using the PCC framework to help form a question for a scoping review. The PCC framework aims to help you identify the what, who and where for the topic of interest. 

If your inital search recalls thousands of results, you may need to narrow the scope of your review by revisting your review question and any inclusion criteria. 

Population Who is the population of interest? Gender, age, ethnicity etc.
Concept What are you interested in researching? This could be an intervention or activity, or phenomena of interest.
Context Are you interested in a specific setting or location?


What were the unintended consequences of measures taken in the UK school setting to prevent and manage the spread of Covid-19?

Population Children, teachers
Concept Covid-19 mitigation consequences
Context UK schools

The PICO framework can help you structure your search question and enable you to find the information you need most effectively.

PICO is a method of searching for evidence, commonly used within health and medicine. It helps to break down a clinical scenario and turn it into a clinical question. The formulating a search question guide provides an introduction to using PICO in practice.

The majority of research questions will have an identifiable population and intervention (or 'indicator'). These concepts will form the key parts of your search strategy. When using the framework, it's not necessary to use every category, the categories are simply there to guide you in forming a evidence-based question. Many clearly defined questions do not have a comparison or control to consider, so don't worry if this category isn't applicable for your topic.

Thinking about the Outcome you are interested in can help you focus your topic of interest. Systematic search strategies do not usually include search terms for outcomes, as these may affect the sensitivity of the search (i.e. you may miss relevant results).

Complete module three of Cochrane Interactive Learning 'searching for studies' to learn more.

If your research doesn't look at clinical effectiveness, there are other frameworks available to help you structure your question. Take a look at this guide for examples.

The PEO framework is useful for building research questions that have a qualitative focus.

        P           ​

  Population and their problems​

  • how would you describe the patient or population of interest? ​

        E ​


  • what has the population been exposed to?​

  • What have they experienced?​


  Outcomes or themes​

  • Outcome(s) of interest​

  • unlike in PICO, the outcome is almost always used in the search terms with the PEO framework​


 P          ​

 Population and their problems          ​






 Outcomes or themes​

 Attitudes, feelings, views​


Example question: What are nurses attitudes towards revalidation? ​

The SPICE framework is useful for social sciences topics, or qualitative research questions that require subjective evaluation.

S Setting - where?
P Perspective - for whom?
I Intervention - what?
C Comparison - compared with what?
E Evaluation - with what result?


S Setting - where? Exeter
P Perspective - for whom? University students
I Intervention - what? Pet therapy
C Comparison - compared with what? No support
E Evaluation - with what result? Students' self-reported stress levels before exams

Booth, A. (2006). Clear and present questions: Formulating questions for evidence based practice. Library Hi Tech24(3), 355-368.

The SPIDER framework has been designed to help you find qualitative and mixed-method studies.

S Sample
PI Phenomenon of interest
D Design
E Evaluation
R Research type


S Sample Teen parents
PI Phenomenon of interest Pregnancy
D Design Questionnaire
E Evaluation Experiences
R Research type Qualitative

Cooke, A., Smith, D., & Booth, A. (2012). Beyond PICO: The SPIDER tool for qualitative evidence synthesis. Qualitative Health Research, 22(10), 1435-1443. doi:10.1177/1049732312452938

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