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Systematic Reviews & Meta-Analysis

Learn about the systematic review and meta-analysis process

Identifying Your Research Question

The first step in performing a Systematic Review is to develop your research question. The guidance provided on how to develop your research question for literature reviews will still apply here. The difference with a systematic review research question is that you must have a clearly defined question and consider what problem are you trying to address by conducting the review. The most important point is that you focus your question and design the question so that it is answerable by the research that you will be systematically examining.

Once you have developed your research question, it should not be changed once the review process has begun, as the review protocol needs to be formed around the question. 

Literature Review Question Systematic Review Question
Can be broad; highlight only particular pieces of literature, or support a particular viewpoint. Requires the question to be well-defined and focused so it is possible to answer.

To help develop and focus your research question you may use one of the question frameworks below.

Methods for Refining a Research Topic

PICO questions can be useful in the health or social sciences. PICO stands for:

  • Patient, Population, or Problem: What are the characteristics of the patient(s) or population, i.e. their ages, genders, or other demographics? What is the situation, disease, etc., that you are interested in?
  • Intervention or Exposure: What do you want to do with the patient, person, or population (i.e. observe, diagnose, treat)?
  • Comparison: What is the alternative to the intervention (i.e. a different drug, a different assignment in a classroom)?
  • Outcome: What are the relevant outcomes (i.e. complications, morbidity, grades)?

Additionally, the following are variations to the PICO framework:

  • PICO(T): The 'T' stands for Timing, where you would define the duration of treatment and the follow-up schedule that matter to patients. Consider both long- and short-term outcomes.
  • PICO(S): The 'S' stands for Study type (eg. randomized controlled trial), sometimes S can be used to stand for Setting or Sample Size

PPAARE is a useful question framework for patient care:

  • Problem - Description of the problem related to the disease or condition

  • Patient - Description of the patient related to their demographics and risk factors

  • Action - Description of the action related to the patient’s diagnosis, diagnostic test, etiology, prognosis, treatment or therapy, harm, prevention, patient ed.

  • Alternative - Description of the alternative to the action when there is one. (Not required)

  • Results - Identify the patient’s result of the action to produce, improve, or reduce the outcome for the patient

  • Evidence - Identify the level of evidence available after searching

SPIDER is a useful question framework for qualitative evidence synthesis:

  • Sample - The group of participants, population, or patients being investigated. Qualitative research is not easy to generalize, which is why sample is preferred over patient.

  • Phenomenon of Interest - The reasons for behavior and decisions, rather than an intervention.

  • Design - The research method and study design used for the research, such as interview or survey.

  • Evaluation - The end result of the research or outcome measures.

  • Research type - The research type; Qualitative, quantitative and/or mixed methods.

SPICE is a particularly useful method in the social sciences. It stands for

  • Setting (e.g. United States)
  • Perspective (e.g. adolescents)
  • Intervention (e.g. text message reminders)
  • Comparisons (e.g. telephone message reminders)
  • Evaluation (e.g. number of homework assignments turned in after text message reminder compared to the number of assignments turned in after a telephone reminder)

CIMO is useful method in the social sciences or organisational context. It stands for

  • Context - Which individuals, relationships, institutional settings, or wider systems are being studied?
  • Intervention - The effects of what event, action, or activity are being studied?
  • Mechanism- What are the mechanisms that explain the relationship between interventions and outcomes? Under what circumstances are these mechanisms activated or not activated?
  • Outcomes- What are the effects of the intervention? How will the outcomes be measured? What are the intended and unintended effects?

Has Your Systematic Review Already Been Done?

Once you have a reasonably well defined research question, it is important to check if your question has already been asked, or if there are other systematic reviews that are similar to that which you're preparing to do.

In the context of conducting a review, even if you do find one on your topic, it may be sufficiently out of date or you may find other defendable reasons to undertake a new or updated one. In addition, locating an existing systematic reviews may also provide a starting point for selecting a review topic, it may help you refocus your question, or redirect your research toward other gaps in the literature.

You may locate existing systematic reviews or protocols on the following resources: