Conducting a literature review: creating a good question

Conducting a literature review: creating a good question

Questions can be created to answer a question in practice, or as an aim for research, so you must be clear which goal you are aiming for!

For both,  you must first think of the question in narrative format, that describes the purpose and aim of your review.confused otterThen you need to break down the narrative question (using PICOT, SPICE, ECLIPSE or SPIDER tools) so you can identify each concept that needs to be searched for.  To create a good research question, there are different tools you can use as a guide to identify the different concepts your question is made up of. Each of them is best suited to a different type of aim and question:


PICOT tool (Riva et al 2012) for clinical quantitative diagnosis-type questions, where there are two well-defined alternatives you are comparing. Eg. Does medication A more effectively reduce  glaucoma in adults aged over 70 than medication B?

SPICE tool (Booth 2004, 2006) for intervention qualitative evidence-type questions, especially where there’s policy or practical implications to consider,
such as whether a policy/intervention has improved patient health or not.
Eg. Do hip fracture patients who stay in hospital for over four days recover more quickly on wards where staff have completed a training course in compassionate care?

ECLIPSE tool (Wildridge & Bell 2002) for health service questions, especially where exploring relevant information rather than comparing two options. Eg. Has the new advertising campaign run by the Stop Smoking Service resulted in increased smoking cessation amongst smokers as reported by GPs ?

SPIDER tool (Cooke et al 2012) for qualitative-type questions, focusing on study design and samples more than interventions. Eg What are young parents’ experiences of attending antenatal education?


Examples of questions produced from these tools can be found here. Fink (1998) asserts that a good search will attempt to use MeSH terms (Medical Subject Headings), which are a bit like using a thesaurus to find similar words so you can ensure you’re not missing out anything in your search because someone else calls it by a different name!



Booth A. (2004) ‘Formulating answerable questions’ in Booth A & Brice A (Editors) Evidence based practice for information professionals: A handbook (pp.61-70) London: Facet Publishing  [SPICE]

Booth, A. (2006). Clear and present questions: formulating questions for evidence-based practice. Library Hi Tech. 24(3):355-368  [SPICE]

Cooke, A., Smith, D. and Booth, A. (2012). Beyond PICO: the SPIDER tool for qualitative evidence synthesis. Qualitative Health Research 22(10):1435-1443 [SPIDER]

Fink A (1998) Conducting research literature reviews: from paper to the
internet. London: Sage.

Riva JJ, Malik KMP, Burnie SJ, Endicott AR, Busse JW (2012) What is your research question? An introduction to the PICOT format for clinicians. The Journal of the Canadian Chiropractic Association 56(3):167-171. [PICOT]

Walker & Sofaer

Wildridge, V., & Bell, L (2002) How CLIP became ECLIPSE: A mnemonic to assist in searching for health policy/management information. Health Information and Libraries Journal, 19(2), 113-115 [ECLIPSE]


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