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Systematic searching: 1. From a topic to a research question

From a topic to a research question

A systematic search always starts with defining the research topic. Try to choose a topic in which you have at least some interest, or in which you would genuinely like to find information. A systematic search requires both time and perseverance, so a topic that motivates you will also help you to complete your research with flying colours.

NOTE! When choosing your topic, please avoid topics that deal with highly sensitive issues, social media data or vulnerable groups such as children, patients and the elderly. Such topics can be challenging from a data protection and research ethics perspective. Even before you start collecting data, you may need to do a lot of research and write detailed documentation about your data collection methods and instruments, for example. This takes a lot of time and requires a good understanding of data protection issues.

Once you have chosen your topic, you should define the research question(s) that your research will seek to answer, based on your protocol. It is worth taking the time to formulate your research questions. Keep your questions neutral, i.e. do not make assumptions in your questions about what kind of information you will find. A good research question is precise, well-defined and simple enough.

The PICO model

There are different models that you can use to help you formulate your research questions, the best known of which is PICO. In the PICO model, you break down your topic into concepts and identify the components of your research question, i.e.

  • Patient/Population
  • Intervention 
  • Comparison
  • Outcome

Remember, however, that it depends entirely on your topic whether it fits into the PICO model. For more information, take a look at the links below.

PICO example

Research question: What are the effects of physical activity on the performance of basic activities of daily living for people with dementia compared to conventional treatment (or another non-pharmacological method)?






physical activity



conventional treatment (or another non-pharmacological method)



activities of daily living (ADL)


Reference: Tutkimustiedon hakeminen. Hotus: Hoitotyön tutkimussäätiö. 

Preliminary searches

It is often a good idea to carry out a preliminary search  on a topic to support both the selection of the topic and the definition of the research questions. By looking at the literature on the topic, you will be able to get a better idea of how much and what kind of literature is available on the subject from the outset of your research.

Example topic

The topic "Hand hygiene skills of student nurses" could be formulated into the following research question:

What factors contribute to nursing students' hand hygiene competence during their studies?


Image: StartupStockPhotos

PICO alternatives

In particular, qualitative research topics can be difficult to fit into the PICO model. This is where models developed specifically for qualitative research questions, such as SPIDER, SPICE and ECLIPSe, can be useful.
Read more on these models via the links below.


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